KANO, Nigeria (AFP) – The first of one of 219 schoolgirls abducted by Boko Haram in Chibok, north-east Nigeria, more than two years ago has been found, the military and activists said on Wednesday, raising hopes for those still being held.
Amina Ali was discovered on Tuesday in the Sambisa Forest area of Borno state by civilian vigilantes assisting the military and was brought back to her home town of Mbalala, near Chibok.
Yakubu Nkeki, head of the Abducted Chibok Girls Parents’ group, said the teenager, who was 17 when she was abducted in April 2014, was brought to his house where she was reunited with her mother.
She was then handed over to the military and taken to the nearby town of Damboa, from where she was expected to be transferred to the state capital, Maiduguri, he told AFP.
The BringBackOurGirls campaign group said Ali was identified by her school vice-principal.
“She (Ali) provided useful information that her other classmates are still held under heavy terrorist captivity in the Sambisa Forest area,” said spokesman Sesugh Akume.
But she was quoted as saying by Chibok community leader Tsambido Hoseana Abana that “six were already dead”, while Nkeki and other community leaders said she was found with a baby.
The Sambisa Forest has long been known to contain Boko Haram camps.
Other abducted women rescued from the former game reserve over the last year have reported seeing some of the Chibok girls.
Army spokesman Colonel Sani Usman confirmed Ali’s rescue, although he gave a different name – Falmata Mbalala – and said she was found by troops in Baale, near Damboa.
Manaseh Allan, a Chibok youth leader, said it was not uncommon for children in the town to use different names at home and at school.
The leader of the BringBackOurGirls group in Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, former education minister Oby Ezekwesili, welcomed Ali’s rescue, tweeting: “#218ShallBeBack because #HopeEndures.”
The group has mounted daily vigils in the capital since the abduction calling for the release of the schoolgirls and hundreds of other hostages.
Boko Haram has used kidnapping as a weapon of war, seizing thousands of women and young girls, forcing them to become sex slaves and even suicide bombers.
Men and young boys have been forcibly conscripted to the Islamists’ ranks.
Unicef spokeswoman in West and Central Africa Helene Sandbu Ryeng said for Ali and others rescued, “being freed from Boko Haram and returning home is only the first step”.
“Children in this situation typically require medical assistance and psycho-social support to help them cope with what they have been through while they were in captivity,” she said.
“Many of them need help to re-integrate their family and their community” with the risk of “mistrust, stigma and rejection” high when they return, she added.
Boko Haram, which opposes Western education, seized 276 students from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok on the night of April 14, 2014.
Fifty-seven managed to escape in the immediate aftermath.
The abduction sparked outrage worldwide and brought global attention to the Boko Haram insurgency, which has killed at least 20,000 people and made more than 2.6 million homeless since 2009.
Nothing had been heard from the 219 since a video published by the Islamists in May 2014, until an apparent “proof of life” message was sent to the Nigerian government earlier this year.
Fifteen of the girls, wearing black hijabs, were seen in the video, which was purportedly shot on Dec 25, Christmas Day, last year.
But despite the identities of the girls being confirmed by mothers and a classmate, the government said it was cautious about raising hopes of their release.
There have been previous claims of talks with Boko Haram, whose leader Abubakar Shekau has said he would release the hostages if Islamist fighters held in Nigerian custody were released.
But the talks appear to have been with factions of the group, without the approval of the high command.
The video gave weight to theories the girls were split up after the abduction and were being held in separate locations, complicating any possible talks or a rescue bid.
The girls were taken as Boko Haram captured swathes of territory in northeastern states in 2014. But the insurgents have been pushed out by a military fight-back in the last 15 months.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who has said Boko Haram is “technically” defeated, has said success in the campaign would be measured on the return of the Chibok girls and other abductees.