IN a haze of official denial surrounding movement of captured Boko Haram insurgents in the opposite direction, 21 of the Chibok schoolgirls last Thursday returned to safety. They were, as widely feared after more than two years in captivity, a shadow of their youthful selves.
While one of the girls cradled a baby, sources alleged that as much as 18 of the group could be nursing mothers.
The girls were part of the 276 pupils abducted by extremists from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State on April 14, 2014 while they stayed to write final year examinations. The abduction sparked outrage and prompted global figures, including activist Malala Yousafzai and US first lady, Michelle Obama, to support the campaign #BringBackOurGirls.
After the insurgents stormed and firebombed the school and seized the girls, dozens escaped within hours but 219 remained missing until recently. While some of the ones that managed to get away have since benefited from scholarship opportunities at home and abroad, others, mainly through their minders, have complained of neglect and unfulfilled pledges.
The government denied a swap arrangement on the latest release but reports indicated that the girls were traded with four detained Boko Haram fighters at the Borno border town Banki. The Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed said: “That is not true. If you listen, I said this particular release is significant because it is a first step in what we believe will lead to the eventual release of all our girls in custody. And it is significant also because we have been able to establish ever than before a kind of confidence in the core leadership of Boko Haram and Nigerians. And I am not aware of any monetary transactions.”
The government would not relent until the remaining girls regained freedom, he pledged.
The release of the girls coincided with the start of President Muhammadu Buhari’s three-day trip to Germany to discuss assistance for rebuilding of the Boko Haram-ravaged northeast. The president said that the release underscored his determination to secure all Nigerians wherever they might be.
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo visited the girls and the baby at the Directorate of State Services (DSS) medical facility in Abuja after they were brought to the Federal Capital Territory. Borno State governor, Kashim Shetima, thought the girls’ return heralded greater news. He expressed gratitude to the president for the efforts made so far, hoping that the rest of the girls would be rescued alive.
Former Minister of Education and leading voice on the global #Bring Back Our Girls campaign, #BBOG, Oby Ezekwesili, expressed gratitude to God and thanked the president and gallant Nigerian soldiers. Ezekwesili, on the social media, admitted a mix of emotions.
A common thread runs through the captives’ narrative. Many endured sex abuse in the sect’s Sambisa Forest enclave and arrived makeshift army and government camps starving and traumatised after trekking through the bush for days.
Shortsightedness in policy making and a weakened military under Goodluck Jonathan administration, in the opinion of many, heightened insurgency and his 2015 presidential election defeat. While thousands of girls, boys and young women are estimated to have been kidnapped in a seven-year-old insurgency that claimed over 20,000 lives in and around Nigeria’s borders, the military has reportedly freed thousands following Buhari’s emergence and a reinvigorated military operation.
Deriving from the casualty figures as well as the combined effect of official neglect and societal permissiveness, however, Boko Haram may have assumed the reputation of being the deadliest terror organisation on the planet, perhaps more than the Islamic State. Through the coercive methods of murder and rape, the sect is believed to have forced 10 to 12-year-old girls to strap on explosives for deadly suicide bomb attacks.
Where Jonathan’s allegedly corrupt and intimidated force skirted the Boko Haram stronghold of Sambisa Forest, their contemporaries, assisted by the local vigilante group called Civilian JTF, force the bedraggled opposition to the recesses of the sprawling game reserve from where they launch occasional guerrilla attacks.
The first of the girls to be liberated from the fortress, Amina Ali Nkeki, was in May, 2016 brought to the village for identification. She was rescued in Bale village at the edge of the Sambisa forest by the Civilian JTF after fierce fighting with insurgents.
Witnesses instantly recognised the girl and sent for her mother. Mother and daughter rushed into an embrace. Seventeen at the time of her abduction, the 19-year-old was ‘married’ to a Boko Haram fighter and bore his four-month-old child, it emerged.
Her father died of trauma while she was in captivity. Six other parents also died of the same condition.
In tears, Amina reportedly told of schoolmates languishing in Sambisa forest while six had died. They were ‘well secured and protected’ to stop the Nigerian Army from rescuing them, she said.
A doctor from Chibok, Idriss Danladi, who treated beleaguered parents of the abducted girls, threw in a dampener. Amina was pregnant again.
Her rescue, however, raised hopes in Chibok and across the country that some of the famous girls lived in spite of their infamous captors.
James Bako, an opinion leader in Chibok, who was one of the first to see the rescued girl, said she escaped from the Sambisa Forest together with her ‘husband’ as a result of ground and aerial offensive by Nigerian security forces.
He said that the girl claimed that she was forcefully married off to the man, Mohammed Hayado, whom she said was equally abducted, conscripted and told to fight for the insurgents.
Three months after her escape, Amina pined for her rebel husband. Held hostage by the terrorist group for more than two years, she said she was married off a year into her ordeal and later had a baby girl, Safiya. Found on the outskirts of Nigeria’s Sambisa Forest, the couple fled the camp by themselves, and was not rescued by the Nigerian military, contrary to reports.
For a year after they were taken, the abducted girls were kept together, Amina said. Some of the teenagers were then ‘given’ to the terrorists as wives.
Twenty-one-year-old Tabitha Adamu, one of the women freed from the sect’s camp but not originally of the group of kidnapped Chibok girls, said the Chibok girls had turned to Boko Haram fighters (for protection). Expectant for one of the sect’s commanders who forcibly married her, Tabitha said she mingled with the girls at various times in the sect’s camp.
The chairman of Chibok community in Abuja, Tsamdo Hosea Abana, also confirmed that one of the girls released by the insurgents, Susan Ishaya, to be pregnant. Abana bemoaned the trauma experienced by parents and the abducted girls.
Security sources said Miss Ishaya was found near a police station in the border town of Mubi after she was left there by the insurgents. Abana confirmed that Miss Ishaya was among the schoolgirls abducted by the insurgent group in Chibok, Borno State.
While the war against insurgency nears closure, the plight of the rescued girls, especially of the Chibok group, opens a new vista. Besides the challenge of catering to pregnant and lactating mothers are resettlement and re-absorption of the affected into a critical society.