KANO, Nigeria (AFP) – Binta Ali hadn’t seen her daughter Amina since she was abducted with more than 200 classmates from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, north-east Nigeria, more than two years ago.
Amina and her brother Mai were Binta’s only living children. The other 11 had died.
And while Amina was being held by Boko Haram Islamists, Binta, in her sixties, also lost her husband Ali, one of 18 parents of the 219 kidnapped girls to die since the abduction on April 14, 2014.
“He died of high blood pressure,” said Yakubu Nkeki, head of the Abducted Chibok Parents’ group.
Those parents have been hanging on to hope for their daughters’ return.
On Tuesday, Binta’s prayers were answered when Amina was found by soldiers and civilian vigilantes.
“They (the vigilantes) took her to her village and parked the vehicle outside her house,” said Ayuba Alamson Chibok, a Chibok community leader.
“They sent for the mother and told her to go to the vehicle and see if the girl inside is her daughter.
“When the mother approached the car the girl stepped out and her mother exclaimed, ‘Amina! Is that you?’ They ran towards each other and hugged. The mother burst in tears.
“Relatives and neighbours quickly gathered around the duo and began to celebrate and singing praises to God for rescuing the girl.”
News of the reunion spread like wildfire through the ramshackle market town of Mbalala and to Chibok, a short drive away along a dusty, unpaved road.
Mbalala, like Chibok, has only a patchy mobile phone signal, making communication further afield difficult; troops on the look-out for militants patrol the roads.
The Nigerian Army said troops from 25 Brigade stationed in Damboa, nearly 40km from Chibok, were deployed on Tuesday with civilian vigilantes in Baale.
“Vigilantes from Chibok and Damboa regularly team up and raid Boko Haram camps in and around nearby Sambisa Forest where ongoing military operations are forcing Boko Haram out,” said Alamson.
They saw about a dozen people near Kilakesa village at the edge of the former game reserve where Boko Haram is known to have camps and they appeared to be fleeing.
Among them was a young girl in a hijab resembling those worn by the Chibok girls in previous Boko Haram video messages. She was carrying a baby.
The vigilantes, most of whom are volunteers and equipped only with rudimentary weapons including single-shot muskets, slingshots and sticks, caught the group and began to question them.
Alamson said the girl told them her name was Amina Ali and that she was one of the Chibok girls.
She then pointed to a man whom she identified as her husband, Mohammed Hayatu, from Mubi in Adamawa state. The military described him as “a suspected Boko Haram terrorist”.
Binta and Amina’s brief reunion outside the family home – a single-storey mud-brick dwelling with a corrugated iron roof – came after one of the vigilantes recognised Amina.
“He asked her if she was the daughter of the late Ali, from Mbalala, and she answered, ‘Yes’,” said Chibok.
Amina, Hayatu and a four-month-old baby girl named Safiya were taken to 25 Brigade headquarters in Damboa at about 2.30pm (9.30pm Singapore time) on Wednesday.
They were then transferred to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri for “further medical attention and screening”, said army spokesman Sani Usman.
Nkeki said Amina’s release had brought “very deep joy” to a place that has suffered so much and which has become a symbol of the conflict.
Amina was 17 when she was kidnapped. She is now 19 and, according to the military, a mother. Few can imagine what she has endured in captivity.
But Nkeki said both Amina and her daughter would be accepted back into the community.
“We will accept her into the family as one of our own daughters.” he said.