How it felt to see 21 Chibok schoolgirls reunited with their families

One of the 21 released girls celebrates with family members during 
a church service held in Abuja, 16th October. Photo: AP Photo / Olamikan Gbemiga

On the night of 14th April 2014, 276 female 
students were abducted from their dormitory in 
a government-run secondary school in Chibok in north-eastern Nigeria. Their captors, later revealed to be Boko Haram militants, fled north with the girls to the Sambisa forest. Fifty-seven students escaped along the way: the remaining 219 disappeared without trace.

Two weeks later, frustrated by the lack of progress in securing the girls’ release, Aisha Yesufu led 
a march of 2,000 people in the capital, Abuja, demanding action. 
That march kickstarted the Bring Back Our Girls movement, which continues to exert pressure on the Nigerian government and raise global awareness about the missing students today.

In the two-and-a-half years since the fateful night there had been little cause for celebration. Three of the Chibok girls were found in May 2016 but the others had only been seen on sporadically published Boko Haram propaganda videos. Then, on 13th October, after a successful negotiation between the terrorists and the federal government, the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross, 21 girls were released to Nigerian officials in Abuja. Three days later they were reunited with their families.

I saw a father hugging his daughter like he would a newborn, holding her 
like she was his whole world”

“It was a good day to be alive,” says Yesufu. “There was a huge celebration. I saw a father hugging his daughter like he would a newborn, holding her like she was his whole world.”

According to Yesufu the news gave hope to the entire community. “Everyone celebrated,” she says. “Including the parents of the 195 that are still in captivity waiting to be brought back [the figure has since been reduced to 113, following the release on of a further 82 of the captive girls on 7th May 2017]. The fact that 21 had come home, even though it wasn’t their own children, gave them hope.”

Other than a carefully managed Christmas visit, most of the released girls are yet to return to Chibok, remaining under government care as they continue to undergo medical and psychological assessments. “Since the day of the release we have not been allowed to see them, talk to them, or have any contact,” says Yesufu. “We don’t have any information about how they are doing. Obviously they are forever changed by their experience.”

Aisha Yesufu. Photo: AP / PA Images

Some international human rights groups believe that fear of abuse or ostracism by the deeply conservative local community could prevent the girls from returning to their old lives in Chibok.

Yesufu is more optimistic, and says that Bring Back Our Girls has developed a process they believe can help reintegrate the girls into society. “We have had two meetings with President Muhammadu Buhari and offered him our advice on reintegration, but are yet to receive an answer,” she says. “We stand ready to support the government in every relevant respect.”

Until then all the group’s energies are focused on those still in captivity. “Our hope is renewed that the government will fulfil the pledge it made to rescue all our Chibok girls, as well as every other abducted citizen of our country,” says Yesufu. “So that parents, the Chibok community, the nation and the world can finally put an end 
to this nightmare once and for all.”

 

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