When the 21 girls released by Boko Haram on 13 Oct. met Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari they thanked him personally for his part in their release. Addressing a crowd at the presidential villa, one of the girls, Rebecca Mallum, burst into song. She later said: “We are happy to see this wonderful day because we didn’t know we would come back to be members of Nigeria. Let us thank God for his love.”
Speaking to CNN, some of the girls said they plan to return to school – Boko Haram translates in the local Hausa language as “Western education is forbidden”.
On her release one girl revealed more about life in captivity, said a parent who wished to remain anonymous. The parent said that one of the girls had refused to marry a Boko Haram fighter and was told she would be killed. In the end she was given 100 lashes.
The girls have been undergoing intense psychological evaluations at a medical facility in the capital, Abuja.
Nigeria’s Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, has spoken about the release of 21 girls and a boy born in captivity to one of their number: “This is only the first step in what we believe will be total liberation and release of all the remaining girls.”
“Already we are on phase two and we are already in discussions,” he said on Sunday (16 Oct.). “But of course you know these are very delicate negotiations, there are some promises we made also about the confidentiality of the entire exercise and we intend to keep them.”
According to the government’s Senior Special Assistant for Media and Publicity, Malam Garba Shehu, a splinter group of Boko Haram is willing to negotiate the release of 83 more girls. CNN reported that the other 114 girls are dead, or, reportedly, don’t want to leave their kidnappers because they are now married or have been radicalised.
This release is only the second time any of the 219 long-term captives (over 50 girls escaped shortly after being taken) have found freedom. Amina Ali Nkeki, 19, was the first of the 219 to be found alive when she was discovered by vigilantes in the Sambisa Forest. Nkeki revealed that she knew of six of the remaining 218 who had died. If negotiations to release 83 more are successful, that leaves at least 100 girls either still among Boko Haram or unaccounted for.
There are conflicting reports about the terms of the girls’ release, which was brokered by the Swiss Government and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The government has denied any prisoner exchange, but, according to Associated Press, two military officers have said four detained Boko Haram commanders were freed; AP reports that a Nigerian who negotiated previous failed attempts also said a large ransom was paid by the Swiss government on behalf of Nigerian authorities.
The released girls finally met with their families on Sunday in Abuja after some parents had travelled for days for the emotional reunion.
One of the girls, Gloria Dame, said they had survived for 40 days without food and narrowly escaped death at least once.
Muta Abana, who has been reunited with his daughter, Blessing, said he thought the girls’ abduction had been politicised, complaining that “people’s children aren’t money, people’s children are not clothes you wear to campaign, people’s children are their pride”.
The girls are currently receiving medical attention and trauma counselling in a hospital.
Details have now emerged about the conditions of release of the 21 Chibok girls. They were freed before dawn on 13 Oct. in the north-eastern town of Banki, near the border with Cameroon. They were then transported to the capital, Abuja, where they met the Vice President.
“The whole country has been waiting that one day we will see you again and we are very happy to see you back,” said Yemi Osinbajo.
“The president in particular has asked me to tell you how excited he is. When you were away, he kept saying that if it were his daughter he wouldn’t even know what to do.
“So we are all very excited that you are here. We are all happy that God has preserved your lives and brought you back.”
Presidential aide Garba Shehu said the girls’ release was the “outcome of negotiations between the administration and the Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government”.
There was speculation that the girls were handed over in exchange for the release of Boko Haram fighters. AFP quoted a local source in saying that four Boko Haram prisoners had been “swapped” for the girls, but the information minister, Lai Mohammed, denied this.
“Please note that this is not a swap. It is a release, the product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides,” he said.
“We have nothing to add,” said a Swiss government official, when asked if it had been a prisoner swap.
The talks with the radical Islamic group will continue, according to the Nigerian government.
Pictures released by local media and a presidency official showed one of the girls holding a baby when they met Vice President Osinbajo. Many of the girls looked frail. Most of the girls were reportedly forcibly converted to Islam and forced into “marriage” by their captors.
The government also released the names of the 21 girls:
1. Mary Usman Bulama
2. Jummai John
3. Blessing Abana
4. Luggwa Sanda
5. Comfort Habila
6. Maryam Basheer
7. Comfort Amos
8. Glory Mainta
9. Saratu Emmanuel
10. Deborah Ja’afaru
11. Rahab Ibrahim
12. Helin Musa
13. Mayamu Lawan
14. Rebecca Ibrahim
15. Asabe Goni
16. Deborah Andrawus
17. Agnes Gapani
18. Saratu Markus
19. Glory Dama
20. Pindah Nuhu
21. Rebecca Mallam.
Previous article (13 Oct.):
Boko Haram has released 21 of the girls kidnapped in Chibok in April 2014 to the Nigerian Army in Maidugiri, capital of Borno state (where the Islamist group has been strongest), according to the Nigerian President’s spokesman. This has not yet been independently confirmed.
It’s been two and a half years since 275 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their dormitories in Chibok, in the north-eastern state of Borno. Their disappearance eventually generated headlines around the world and fuelled a social-media storm, with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.
Today is the first time any of the schoolgirls have been found since May, when two girls were discovered in the space of two days.
A Christian girl, Amina Ali Nkeki was found on 17 May in the Sambisa Forest, close to the border with Cameroon. Two days later, Nigeria’s army said it had rescued a second girl, Serah Luka, believed to be the daughter of a pastor, though she was later found to not have been among the Chibok girls.
Nkeki had escaped with the Boko Haram fighter to whom she had been forcibly married, and with their child. She appealed for support for the young man, whom she implied might have been himself forced into becoming a fighter, saying he had not treated her too badly, and that she “missed him”.
I would have celebrated even if one person was freed. I am very, very happy to hear that 21 of them are free. My heart is also rejoicing that one day soon … the majority of them, if not all of them, are going to be freed.
–Rev. Joel Billi, EYN
A month after she escaped, some members of “BringBackOurGirls” (BBOG) – an advocacy group campaigning for the safe rescue of the girls – expressed concerns over Nkeki’s whereabouts, saying she had been kept under close control by the government, and that she appears to be now treated as if she’s become a Muslim (which she would have done against her will).
President Muhammadu Buhari had promised the government “will do everything possible” to ensure she receives the care to make a full recovery and to be reintegrated fully into society. But some of the group were concerned she had not been allowed to return to her Christian family, which they assumed would be a strong element in her recovery from trauma.
Rev. Joel Billi, president of the Ekeklesiya Yan’uwa Nigeria (EYN) Church, told World Watch Monitor that 201 of the kidnapped girls belong to his church.
“I would have celebrated even if one person was freed. I am very, very happy to hear that 21 of them are free,” he said. “My heart is also rejoicing that one day soon … the majority of them, if not all of them, are going to be freed.
“When I heard about this news, I said that the church has to come out and talk to the federal government. The church should be in forefront of all things because Anima, who was rescued few months ago, as I am talking, we don’t know where she is. This is to say we have mixed feelings about the whole thing.”
Meantime, in September, the Nigerian government had for the first time disclosed the details of its failure to secure the release of the girls during negotiations which began in July 2015, shortly after Buhari took office.
Three times the negotiations were derailed – once at the last minute, even after the president had agreed to free imprisoned Boko Haram fighters. Another time, talks failed because key members of Boko Haram’s negotiating team were killed.
Buhari, who has been criticised by parents and activists, again appealed for the parents’ trust.
In August, Boko Haram had released a video which appeared to show some of the Chibok girls looking physically weak and traumatised. It showed a masked man demanding the release of militants in exchange, and one girl, who called herself Maida Yakubu, asking her parents to appeal to the government.
Anima, who was rescued few months ago, as I am talking, we don’t know where she is. This is to say we have mixed feelings about the whole thing.
–Rev. Joel Billi, EYN
In April, the Boko Haram group had released a separate video, apparently filmed on Christmas Day 2015 and broadcast on CNN – amongst other outlets – showing 15 of the girls pleading with the Nigerian government to co-operate with the militants for their release. The girls said they were being treated well but wanted to be with their families.
Some parents who attended a screening of that video in Maiduguri identified some of the girls. Two mothers, Rifkatu Ayuba and Mary Ishaya, said they recognised their daughters in the video, while a third mother, Yana Galang, identified five of the missing girls, Reuters reported. One mother said her daughter looked well, much better than she had feared, giving some hope to the families.
The parents have been under a lot of strain: at least 18 of them have died of stress-related illness; three others have themselves been killed by militants; many others have persistent health problems brought on by stress.
Forced to convert and ‘marry’
Most of the girls were reportedly forcibly converted to Islam. It is feared that many have been sexually abused and forced into “marriage” by their captors.
A report by Nigeria’s Political Violence Research Network, “Our Bodies, their Battleground”, detailed this kind of treatment of minority Christians in northern Nigeria going back to 1999. It reveals how tremendously effective and efficient it is to focus attacks on women and girls – because the knock-on effects are devastating to the community. Entire families and Christian communities are thus “dishonoured”, regularly leading husbands to reject wives who are victims of rape, and embarrassment and shame for their children.
The fact that Christian women and children suffer at the hands of Boko Haram is a carefully calculated part of the movement’s multi-pronged front-line offensive, designed to intimidate the population into accepting political-religious change, points out the report.
The use of rape was also justified by Boko Haram militants on the basis of “sex as jizya”, a reference to a tax that early Islamic rulers demanded from their non-Muslim subjects for their own protection.
For hundreds of women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, their ordeal did not end when they escaped, nor when Nigerian soldiers rescued them and reunited them with their families.
Instead of being admired for their bravery, many have become outcasts in their communities, stigmatised due to their perceived association with Boko Haram, reports humanitarian news agency IRIN.
Moreover, others – pregnant after rape by their captors – have been “shamed and are now accused of spawning or seeking to spawn future Boko Haram fighters,” says IRIN.
This all backs up Angelina Jolie’s message of “rape as a ‘policy’ aimed at terrorising and destroying communities”. It’s a message she first spoke about at the UK Parliament in June 2014 and repeated at the House of Lords in September 2015.
“[Islamist groups such as] Islamic State are dictating [it] as policy … beyond what we have seen before,” said Jolie, a UN Special Envoy. The Hollywood actress said the groups know “it is a very effective weapon and they are using it as a centre point of their terror and their way of destroying communities and families, and attacking and dehumanising”.
Jolie shared stories of girls she had met in war zones, who had been repeatedly raped and sold for as little as $40. In 2014, she co-hosted a global summit in London, attended by representatives from more than 100 countries, aimed at raising awareness and tackling the issue of sexual violence in conflict, especially rape as a weapon of war.
World Watch Monitor