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The fate of the Chibok girls

In April 2014 Islamist militants kidnapped 276 girls from their school in Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria.
This month dozens were released.
But when will the rest be free?

A mass kidnapping

It was 15 April 2014 when the militants came to take them.
They were sleeping in their dormitory at Chibok Girls’ Secondary School, with many having come from distant villages to take exams.
Then Boko Haram struck. Altogether 276 girls were kidnapped.
The Islamist militant group had terrorised the north-eastern corner of Nigeria since a wave of attacks in 2009.
They had kidnapped many girls and women before in a conflict that hadn’t garnered significant worldwide attention, but this time was different.
A massive social-media driven campaign followed under the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. Michelle Obama was among the slew of famous people who endorsed it.
But what happened to the girls?
A worldwide social media campaign, supported by well-known figures such as Michelle Obama, followed the kidnapping
A worldwide social media campaign, supported by well-known figures such as Michelle Obama, followed the kidnapping
In the confusion immediately after the kidnapping, 57 managed to escape, but the rest were driven far into the Sambisa forest.
For more than three years the captured girls moved from forest, to city, to caves – shuttled surreptitiously around north-eastern Nigeria.
According to one source, there was plenty of food to begin with – even meat from stolen cows. Boko Haram controlled vast swathes of land and pillaged towns at will.
But 18 months on and with elections looming, the government began taking the war seriously. The army was properly supplied for the first time and made fast gains.
That put pressure on Boko Haram but it also made life harder for their captives - sometimes the girls did not even get one meal a day.
Eventually things improved. The international attention had made them valuable assets – to be traded – and the kidnappers knew it. In the propaganda war, delivering hostages well-fed and healthy would be a show of strength.

The 82

The 82 girls had travelled in the dark to reach the rendezvous point and were waiting nervously on the edge of a forest, near the Cameroon border.
With a cloud of dust and the rumble of heavy engines, four armoured 4x4s approached, bouncing along a dirt track.
The girls didn’t know how to react. They stood in line, shrouded in dark, floor-length hijabs and guarded by seven militants. One read out their names from a list to the mediator who had come to collect them.
Each was asked out loud: “Throughout the time you were with us, did anyone rape you or touch you?” The mediator later said that they had all answered no.
Then it dawned on them that this finally meant freedom. As they ran to the cars they started to clap and joyously burst into song.
Soon they were speeding through savannah-scrub and forest in a convoy of cars.
After a night at an army base, the girls boarded four military helicopters to get to the nearby city of Maiduguri, before flying on to the Nigerian capital Abuja.
It was a low-key arrival on a sleepy Sunday morning. The luxury white coaches, flanked by escort vehicles, sped down empty boulevards, past the city’s grand cathedral and mosque.
It was a place most of the girls had never seen - totally unlike the dusty roads of the rural villages where they had grown up.
They were poked and prodded by doctors and nurses, before being handed polo shirts in fluorescent green, orange and red, and given sheets of patterned cloth to wrap around as skirts and hair ties.
Hours later they were lined up in the dark outside a grand villa, to be paraded in front of a tall, slender, bespectacled man that most of them didn’t recognise.
He was the president, and his election had come while the girls were still in captivity.
The 82 released girls meet the Nigerian president
The 82 released girls meet the Nigerian president
The girls looked as likely to laugh as to cry, dazed and overwhelmed at the attention.
It took time for the news to filter through to their parents in remote, rural Chibok. A full week later they finally received official confirmation.
It was a pleasantly cool morning in Chibok district’s second largest town Mbalala, and the church was quickly filling up for the 8am Sunday service.
The weekly market had been cancelled because of fears over a possible suicide bomb attack.
And the church security guards were searching people as they entered - standard practice even in this remote rural region.
Prayers and singing began the service, with the pastor thanking God for the girls’ release.
Churchgoers in Mbalala give thanks for the release of the girls
Churchgoers in Mbalala give thanks for the release of the girls
Most of them had been Christian when they were abducted, but many converted to Islam while in Boko Haram's clutches - either by force or in the hope of better treatment.
Yakubu Nkeki is the chairman of Chibok Parents' Association and one of the few invited to Abuja to see the freed girls and verify their identities. He brought photographs to show to families after the service, but first he addressed the congregation.
Urging the faithful to continue praying for the girls still held hostage, he then headed home to meet more families. His house has long been a monthly meeting place for Chibok parents.
He read out the names on the list. Parents eagerly checked photos to confirm identities.
And it was an even more special moment for Nkeki - among those freed was Maimuna, the niece he’d brought up as a daughter from four years old.
It was a wonderful day for Chibok citizens.”
Yakubu Nkeki
“When I first saw her she jumped up. She grabbed me and I grabbed her. I held her and started dancing around with her,” he recalls, clapping his hands together as a grin explodes across his face.
“She started laughing, then she started crying. I asked why, and she said it was because she didn’t expect to see me again.”
Five of the seven members of his extended family who had been abducted have now been released.
“It was a wonderful day for Chibok citizens.”
Those parents coming to terms with the fact that their girls weren’t free looked on in sadness, but also in the hope their time would soon come.
In Abuja, Samuel Yaga and his wife Rebecca were left disappointed – they were convinced their daughter Sarah, who’s now 20, would be among those released.
“I am waiting for a phone call – to tell us she is safe,” says Samuel a couple of days after the 82 were freed.
“There are many Sarahs on the list – the surname is wrong, but perhaps it is a mistake,” says her mother Rebecca.
The Samuel family look in vain for their own daughter among the released
The Samuel family look in vain for their own daughter among the released
But as they looked through the video footage of the girls, desperately trying to recognise Sarah, the hope began to drain from them.
“Even if she is not there, although I will be disappointed, I will still be happy for those families whose daughters have come back because some day the rest will be freed,” Rebecca says.
Two family members of each girl are being invited to go to see their daughters in the capital for an emotional reunion, but there are mixed feelings in Chibok as so many girls are still not free.
And even those who have been released may not be able to go home any time soon.

A life apart

This wasn’t the first time that Chibok girls had been released. Last October, 21 had emerged from captivity after long negotiations. They were thin and unhealthy, but alive.
The world watched as they were finally reunited with their families, but then all went quiet.
Some parents have been occasionally allowed to visit the secure unit where they are held in Abuja but the government has kept the media away and said little about them.
The Chibok girls are a high-value target that the government cannot afford to lose.”
The girls – joined by three others who escaped Boko Haram, making a total of 24 – don’t have phones of their own and their parents only hear from them when the authorities call from blocked numbers.
For Christmas they were taken back to Chibok but strict security rules meant they couldn’t go home.
They stayed at a local politician’s house and families were invited to visit at different time of the day. The security services were heavy-handed - deleting photographs taken by friends and family.
The government argues Chibok is not a safe place for the freed girls to be.
Boko Haram fighters still lurk in the forest to the north of town, and make regular attacks on outlying villages looking for food.
The Chibok girls are a high-value target the government cannot afford to lose, and capturing one of them again would be a real victory for Boko Haram.
But as 82 more girls have been released, questions are being asked about whether they might be exchanging one form of imprisonment for another.
“They are fine – very seriously – and they are continuing their education,” says Yakubu Nkeki.
“Every month we pay a visit to them and take their parents too, and they chat to them for almost two or three days before they come back. That is what we did for almost a year now. They are fine.”
Women's affairs minister Aisha al-Hassan leads the 21 girls released in October 2016 to a meeting with Nigeria's president
It takes two days by road to reach Abuja from Chibok. It’s 900km and costs far more than the families of the rescued girls can afford.
They are under the protection of the security services, but are the responsibility of Aisha Jumai al-Hassan, Nigeria’s minister for women.
She was keen to demonstrate that the girls were not being held against their will and so presented three of the freed 21 - Helen Musa, Rebecca Malung and Agnes Gaban - to journalists.
In front of a line of cameras they were asked to explain what life was like in the government care centre.
Slightly awkwardly, the girls reeled off a litany of daily activities.
It was the usual humdrum of boarding school life - prayers, meals, lessons, breaks and study.
They spoke about their favourite classes - biology, chemistry and physics, and sports they like to play.
Despite the media scrum, they were smiling and confident, only mildly intimidated by the interrogation.
Rebecca Malung bowed her head as she spoke. But when she raised her eyes to the cameras she beamed a wide, bright smile.
“The time we heard about our sisters’ release we were so happy,” she said.
When they first came they were having nightmares, but now the nightmares have stopped.”
Nigerian women's affairs minister, Aisha al-Hassan
“Now we’d like to go and visit them and Mama” - she said this nodding over to the women’s minister - “tells us that we’ll go visit them tomorrow. We’re so happy.”
Though the performance was heavily orchestrated, the three girls seemed genuinely at ease.
The government’s position is that this controlled environment is the best thing for them.
The minister said they didn’t want the girls to talk about their experiences – to help them forget - and that five psychologists are working with them to try to get them back to school.
Al-Hassan said the plan is to enrol the girls in school this year. “By September I’m sure that they will have fully recovered from the trauma. When they first came they were having nightmares, but now the nightmares have stopped.”
In Chibok there would be no chance of a good education - in Abuja they can learn new skills and have a more comfortable life.
But some mental health professionals worry the wrong approach is being taken with the girls - that keeping them away from their families will cause unintended harm.
They have been separated from friends and community for a long time so there could be a lot of anxiety in terms of reunification”
Fatima Akilu, psychologist
“They could be experiencing any number of things which could include psychological distress - depression, anxiety and probably signs of post traumatic stress disorder,” says Fatima Akilu, a psychologist who runs an organisation offering therapy to victims of Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.
“They have been separated from friends and community for a long time so there could be a lot of anxiety in terms of reunification… how they would be accepted back into community.
“For some, there might be issues of identification with captors that held them – some might also have bought into some of the belief systems of their captors.
“After a period of psychological adjustment – a couple of months rather than years – I think reunification with the family is very important, because that’s part of healing.”
Akilu understands the rush to get the girls back into education but she says the authorities must be mindful of the fact that the girls were teenagers when kidnapped.
“It is a time when people are really searching for identity – trying to find themselves – and setting goals. So all that was truncated for these girls.”
She believes that family therapy is the best way forward, treating the girls along with their psychologically affected relatives.
But most families can’t move to Abuja.
One mother we spoke to spent some time in the capital visiting her daughter after her initial release, but the city was an uncomfortable, alien world to her.
Eventually she decided to go back to the village. And the village isn’t necessarily the right place for the girls to go.
They had already chosen to take major risks to get an education. Even before the kidnap the school had been closed because of threats from Boko Haram.
It was opened specially so that they could sit their exams, and many people warned them not to go. But they were determined.
Their future was taken from them that night and many of them will be just as determined to get it back.

Village of ghosts

Chibok school is now a mess of crumbling concrete, dusty tumbleweed and overgrown brush.
A few lone walls jut out from the rubble like giant tombstones.
One is incongruously intact, painted in a childlike green and yellow with its abandoned blackboard facing an absent class.
Nearby lies a tangled pile of burnt and rusted desks.
Even before Boko Haram and their threats, people in this poor and remote farming community in Borno state didn’t always put much faith in education.
Some thought it pointless for girls or for boys when compared with learning to farm, cook, or sew.
For others, education is corrupting, leading young people away from the family, from a good marriage and their religion - the Boko Haram view.
According to UN figures, the literacy rate in Borno in 2010 was 14.5%.
The Chibok girls and their parents were supposed to be trailblazers - champions of a good education, but instead the fears of their community were confirmed.
The kidnap proved to many that going to school was dangerous.
Whether the rest of the captured girls are released or not, Boko Haram’s name - which translates as “Western education is forbidden” - rings true. There is no longer a secondary school in Chibok.
The nearest school is probably Maiduguri, the city at the centre of the insurgency.
Boko Haram never controlled its streets, but launched constant attacks from the vast swathes of surrounding territory it occupied.
Flights were cancelled, dangerous roads became impassable and the city was cut off.
For a year now, life has been returning. The checkpoints that once blocked every road have been pushed to the outskirts, the markets are busy again and newly rebuilt roads bubble with traffic.
There’s been a surge in the sale of bicycles, ever since motorbikes – the militants’ mode of choice - were banned.
Beyond the city, much of the state is a wasteland. From the air, a scarred landscape of scorched farmland stretches out for miles.
As they gained territory both Boko Haram and government troops burned everything left behind.
A malnourished boy at a Unicef clinic in Maiduguri - aid agencies warn that the area's instability could produce a famine
A malnourished boy at a Unicef clinic in Maiduguri - aid agencies warn that the area's instability could produce a famine
Now the entire region is facing famine. Millions of people have been forced from their farms and villages. This fertile land used to be the bread-basket of Nigeria but there has barely been a harvest in years. The sale of fertiliser is restricted because it has been used for bombs.
The UN says two million people face starvation if they don’t get emergency aid.
The Nigerian army now claims that Boko Haram holds no territory. That’s hard to verify but the group still has the capacity to launch regular suicide attacks, and that capacity is building.
Since January this year there have been weekly attacks on Maiduguri – with three attacks in three days in April.
The aftermath of a suicide attack in Maiduguri, March 2017
The aftermath of a suicide attack in Maiduguri, March 2017
They’ve also hit military bases with enough firepower to kill five or six soldiers at a time.
But the spate of suicide bombings can also be seen as a sign of desperation. They often fail to hit their targets. And that may be because most of their bombers don’t want to die, or to kill.
The vast majority of this latest suicide army are young women.
At first it made sense - the long flowing veils that women in this part of the country wear could conceal a bomb vest quite easily.
But now women are routinely told to lift their veils at checkpoints, the preponderance of female bombers seems to be less subterfuge than policy.
One young girl was forced to wear a vest three times, having escaped and then been recaptured. Eventually she got away and surrendered to the security forces.
She was with the militants for three years in a camp in the bush. She had refused to marry a Boko Haram commander.
“One of my friends got married to a militant,” says the girl. “Some of the girls hated her for it. I also hated her at the beginning. But I reconsidered when I learned she decided to get married so as not to be killed and to find a way of escaping.
“But I was sad for her because most of us believe that the husbands are harsh on their wives”.
At 15, she says, she was too young to marry and was forced to put on the vest instead.
Before her first mission they led the girls through a ritual, putting henna on their hands and braiding their hair.
Then they were given money to take transport to the outskirts of a town and told to walk the rest of the way.
But the girl wasn’t ready to die yet.
“They believed that if you kill non-believers you will go to paradise,” she says, “but I don’t believe that.”
For the Chibok girls the decision may have been different. From what we know, none were forced to carry out suicide attacks, but they were left with the choice of either being a wife or a servant.
The chairman of Chibok Parents’ Association, Yakubu Nkeki, spoke to the latest group about that dilemma: “According to them it is not forceful. When you decide to marry a militant it’s not by force.”
Yakubu Nkeki
Yakubu Nkeki
Some girls explained to him that there are benefits to marriage, as husbands are allowed to build a better shelter for their wives and get better food. In their desperate situation, some saw it as a more comfortable option.
“And there are some that say no – even if they will die they will not marry with this militant.”
Amina Ali was one of the few Chibok girls that escaped. She was found wandering in the bush last May with a boy close to her own age. They were carrying a baby.
He was a Boko Haram fighter and they had been married and had a child together. They seemed to be teenagers in love.
Through interviews given by her mother, Amina said her husband was a victim as well, just a boy kidnapped in the same way she was.
Amina Ali (left) and her baby meet President Buhari
Amina Ali (left) and her baby meet President Buhari
Some of the Chibok girls still remaining with Boko Haram have formed attachments with their captors too. It's impossible to know under what level of duress.
As impressionable teenage girls at the beginning of their three-year captivity, they reacted in different ways and for different reasons.
Some had children by their captors, most have converted to Islam, and some have apparently come under the sway of the ideology of Boko Haram.
“Those who brokered their release told us 83 girls would be on their way,” said Garba Shehu, the government spokesman.
“And when 82 out of the expected 83 turned up, the brokers said one of them said she was happily married and didn’t want to come back.”
Thousands of women and girls have been kidnapped, but the Chibok girls are a special case, as the massive international campaign for their release has given them greater value.
This may have shielded them from the worst abuse, but it has also complicated their release.

The negotiations

The release of the 82 girls came with a price.
Five senior Boko Haram militants were moved from a high security unit to be driven to freedom.
The details of the deal are sketchy. Our sources don’t want to be named and their version of events is hard to confirm, but they say the men were high-level Boko Haram bomb-makers, and that they were accompanied by two million euros in cash.
Paying a ransom as well as swapping prisoners was a sticking point that almost unravelled the whole deal, one source tells us.
President Buhari has not revealed if a ransom was paid
President Buhari has not revealed if a ransom was paid
“It should have happened sooner, but the president was hesitating about freeing the five – and especially about the money,” says the person with detailed knowledge of the deal.
Persuading him was “very, very difficult. It was the most difficult part of the whole negotiation. He didn’t want to pay any money.
“The ransom was two million euros. Boko Haram asked for euros. They chose the suspects and they gave us the list of girls who would be freed.”
Governments rarely admit to paying a ransom, and this claim could not be independently verified.
Reaching that point took a lot of time and there were many setbacks, but trust was gradually built on both sides. The Nigerian army’s surge of military success helped strengthen the government’s hand.
Nigerian senator Sani Shehu has been a main instigator of talks with Boko Haram since the early days of the insurgency.
Sani Shehu
Sani Shehu
When Boko Haram’s founder Mohamed Yusuf was murdered in detention, Shehu arranged for his family to meet the former President Olusegun Obasanjo who was trying to broker peace.
He knew a human rights lawyer, Zanna Mustapha, who had grown up with some senior members of Boko Haram in Maiduguri.
Zanna Mustapha
Zanna Mustapha
Though he never joined the group he had represented them at trial and retained close contact with the leadership.
Zanna Mustapha agreed to join the negotiations, and was to become the key middleman in the release of the first 21 Chibok girls in October 2016, and then the second group of 82.
He was the man on the spot when the girls were handed over.
Neither man has spoken in public about whether any ransom money was paid.
The European Union was approached to act as a mediator, but when it refused, the Swiss government offered to step in.
As the exchange neared, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), prepared the logistics - helping to transfer the girls to safety – but that was their only involvement.
Like many humanitarian aid organisations operating in conflict areas, the ICRC has contact with both sides to ensure aid gets through. Neither the Swiss nor the ICRC will comment on the detail of the negotiations.
With more than a hundred Chibok girls still being held, the efforts at release are continuing.
There are thought to be at least 13 more Boko Haram commanders in custody who could be exchanged. Now that lines of communication are open the timing will depend on the detail.

The propaganda war

One could argue that the Chibok girls are only being released because they have a hashtag.
Every day for three years a group of people have gathered on weathered plastic chairs under the trees at Unity Fountain, a park in the centre of Abuja.
Sometimes there are many, sometimes just a handful - whether it’s stiflingly hot or pouring with rain.
Among them are parents, relatives and supporters of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign and they have vowed to continue meeting every day, until each of the 276 girls is home.
The Chibok girls have names and faces, and we use them as symbols – as a reference point for every one taken before and after them.”
Aisha Yesufu, campaigner
They chant and sing through an old amplifier and a broken speaker, but their voices travel far further than even the boundaries of Nigeria’s administrative capital.
“We brought the attention of the world,” says Aisha Yesufu from the campaign.
“The Chibok girls have names and faces, and we use them as symbols – as a reference point for every one taken before and after them,” she says.
“The atrocities were just being overlooked – they were being meted out – and the world just didn’t look.”
The notoriety of the Chibok girls has put Nigeria under a lot of pressure to secure their freedom.
But there is far more to this tragedy than just the 276.
Nobody knows how many women and girls – let alone boys and men – have been kidnapped by Boko Haram, in the years since the insurgency began.
There are many stories of rape and forced marriage, of children born to militants, of modern day slavery, brutal treatment and murder.
Most of them don’t have public names or faces – there’s no missing person’s bureau in Nigeria.
And so the focus is on the Chibok girls, and something tangible and simple for the country and the world to understand about Boko Haram: they kidnap bright, vulnerable, mostly Christian teenage girls from their school dormitory in the middle of the night and hold them hostage.
The attention has worked in a sense, as half are free, but at what cost to the girls and to the broader war on Boko Haram?
The Chibok girls are famous and that makes them extremely valuable to both sides in the propaganda war.
After they were abducted, Boko Haram released a now infamous video of the girls in the forest, all sitting as if in a school photograph, but wearing grey and black Muslim hijabs.
It was a powerful message: "We have your girls."
When the 82 were released they were again immediately put in front of the cameras - shown by the national broadcaster meeting the Nigerian president.
It's another clear message: "We got them back."
A propaganda video showing a girl who claims she would rather stay with Boko Haram than return to her relatives
A propaganda video showing a girl who claims she would rather stay with Boko Haram than return to her relatives
After it was revealed one girl had decided to stay with her Boko Haram husband rather than be freed, the Islamists were quick to publicise the fact.
They put one of the girls claiming to be from Chibok in front of a camera with an AK-47 and in the video she explained why she wanted to stay.
"They are a town of infidels, we want them to accept Islam and join us in practising the religion," said the girl, addressing her parents.
The girl's mother is involved with #BringBackOurGirls - it's hard to comprehend how difficult those words would be to hear.
The intense media focus has turned a group of young women into a valuable commodity to trade for money and bomb-makers, or to be paraded on national television as sign of military success.
And the fact that the 82 freed girls are now in the care of the government rankles for some activists. The motive might well be to protect them from kidnap, and presumably to probe them for information about their captors, but is it simply switching one form of detention for another?
"They should not be in the captivity of the government after having been in the captivity of the terrorists," says campaigner Aisha Yesufu.
Little is known about exactly what they went through under Boko Haram – because they’ve not been allowed to speak to the media openly, and because of the government’s strategy of trying to make them forget rather than confront their experiences.
If we don’t address the psychological issues that have arisen as a result of this conflict, I think we will be in a lot of trouble for decades to come
Fatima Akilu
Boko Haram is having a devastating impact on a whole swathe of north-eastern Nigeria and the psychological impact is hard to underestimate.
“I would say hundreds of thousands, literally hundreds of thousands of people are affected,” says psychologist Fatima Akilu. “We see about a thousand people every month in Maiduguri alone who have been directly affected by Boko Haram and conflict, and all of them have one psychological disorder or the other.
“If you don’t rebuild people…if we don’t address the psychological issues that have arisen as a result of this conflict, I think we will be in a lot of trouble for decades to come.”
While the negotiations continue to free the remaining Chibok girls, the army is taking back territory - i thought they had from the Islamists and battling against the desperate strategy of suicide bombings.
Freed senior commanders and large amounts of money may lengthen the war for the sake of schoolgirls whose international fame has forced the government’s hand – in a country where thousands more are missing.
On the edge of famine, with millions displaced and a generation traumatised by war and stigma, Nigeria’s true battle is only just beginning.
276 taken on 14 April 2014
57 escaped in the following days
One escaped and was found 18 May 2016
21 were released 13 October 2016
One escaped and was found in a military raid 17 Nov 2016
1 escaped and was found 5 Jan 2017
82 released 6 May 2017
113 still missing

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