Parents reunite with girls freed by Boko Haram

Some of the 21 released Chibok schoolgirls at a gathering in Abuja, Nigeria, last Thursday. As many as 276 girls were taken in April 2014 when Boko Haram militants stormed a boarding school.
Some of the 21 released Chibok schoolgirls at a gathering in Abuja, Nigeria, last Thursday. As many as 276 girls were taken in April 2014 when Boko Haram militants stormed a boarding school.PHOTO: REUTERS

ABUJA (Nigeria) • They were taken deep into the Sambisa Forest to Boko Haram's stronghold, where the more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok were offered a choice: Join the militants or become slaves.

About half of them opted to join and marry the fighters and were taken away, never to be heard from again. Those who refused endured more than two years of servitude, washing, fetching water and cooking for Boko Haram militants.

The girls, nearly all of them Christians, lived in grass huts and were forced to convert to Islam.

At first, they ate rice and maize. But then food became scarce. During their captivity in the forest, a few of them died.

These were the stories that parents of the schoolgirls from Chibok heard on Sunday from 21 of the girls who were released last week after the Nigerian government negotiated their freedom.

The parents of the freed girls, as well as parents of girls still held captive, were bused to the nation's capital for a joyful reunion ceremony at a hospital run by the secret police.

Some parents who met the girls said they had been told one of them died of a snakebite, another died in childbirth and four died in a bombing.

Videos of the ceremony showed reunited families hopping up and down together in celebration, singing Christian songs of praise.

"I felt like it was the day that I brought her into this world," said Ms Ruth Markus, the mother of Saratu, one of the freed girls. "I danced and danced and danced."

The girls are in the custody of the secret police, and they are receiving medical and psychological care, government officials said.

They were scheduled to meet President Muhammadu Buhari yesterday.

Mr Buhari, who took office a year ago, had pledged during his election campaign to find the girls. Officials have said they expect more girls to be released soon.

As many as 276 girls were taken in April 2014 when members of Boko Haram stormed their boarding school during exam week. About 50 of them escaped in the initial days after the abduction, but before last week only one had been found since: Amina Ali, who was discovered this year roaming in the forest with a baby.

Boko Haram fighters have captured and killed large groups of other schoolchildren, but the kidnapping of the students from Chibok caught the world's attention, fuelled by a #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign.

People from Chibok who met the girls on Sunday said they looked gaunt. "They've just become like skeletons," said Ms Yana Galang, a mother of a still-missing girl, and a community leader.

Some parents who met the girls said they had been told one of them died of a snakebite, another died in childbirth - their encampment included male hostages, too - and four died in a bombing.

The Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross helped broker negotiations to release the girls.

Militants had recently gathered the girls together and, after a meeting with Red Cross officials, named those who could go home.

The militants drove them some distance but they were later left to walk for two days to a town where they could contact Nigerian officials.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2016, with the headline 'Parents reunite with girls freed by Boko Haram'. Print Edition | Subscribe