By Michael Ireland, Senior Correspondent, ASSIST News Service (www.assistnews.net)
ABUJA, NIGERIA (ANS, Oct. 15, 2016) — Details have now emerged about the conditions of release of the 21 Chibok girls kidnapped by the Nigerian terrorist group, Boko Haram.
They were freed before dawn on Oct. 13 in the north-eastern town of Banki, near the border with Cameroon. They were then transported to the capital, Abuja, where they met the country’s Vice President.
“The whole country has been waiting that one day we will see you again and we are very happy to see you back,” said Yemi Osinbajo.
“The president in particular has asked me to tell you how excited he is. When you were away, he kept saying that if it were his daughter he wouldn’t even know what to do.
“So we are all very excited that you are here. We are all happy that God has preserved your lives and brought you back.”
Presidential aide Garba Shehu said the girls’ release was the “outcome of negotiations between the administration and the Boko Haram brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government.”
According to World Watch Monitor (www.worldwatchmonitor.org) there was speculation that the girls were handed over in exchange for the release of Boko Haram fighters. Agence France Presse (AFP) news agency quoted a local source in saying that four Boko Haram prisoners had been “swapped” for the girls, but the information minister, Lai Mohammed, denied this.
“Please note that this is not a swap. It is a release, the product of painstaking negotiations and trust on both sides,” he said.
“We have nothing to add,” said a Swiss government official, when asked if it had been a prisoner swap.
The talks with the radical Islamic group will continue, according to the Nigerian government.
Pictures released by local media and a presidential official showed one of the girls holding a baby when they met Vice President Osinbajo. Many of the girls looked frail. Most of the girls were reportedly forcibly converted to Islam and forced into “marriage” by their captors.
The government also released the names of the 21 girls:
1. Mary Usman Bulama
2. Jummai John
3. Blessing Abana
4. Luggwa Sanda
5. Comfort Habila
6. Maryam Basheer
7. Comfort Amos
8. Glory Mainta
9. Saratu Emmanuel
10. Deborah Ja’afaru
11. Rahab Ibrahim
12. Helin Musa
13. Mayamu Lawan
14. Rebecca Ibrahim
15. Asabe Goni
16. Deborah Andrawus
17. Agnes Gapani
18. Saratu Markus
19. Glory Dama
20. Pindah Nuhu
21. Rebecca Mallam.
World Watch Monitor said it has been two and a half years since 275 schoolgirls were kidnapped from their dormitories in Chibok, in the north-eastern state of Borno. Their disappearance eventually generated headlines around the world and fueled a social-media storm, with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.
The agency said this is the first time any of the schoolgirls have been found since May, when two girls were discovered in the space of two days.
A Christian girl, Amina Ali Nkeki was found on May 17 in the Sambisa Forest, close to the border with Cameroon. Two days later, Nigeria’s army said it had rescued a second girl, Serah Luka, believed to be the daughter of a pastor, though she was later found to not have been among the Chibok girls.
Nkeki had escaped with the Boko Haram fighter to whom she had been forcibly married, and with their child. She appealed for support for the young man, whom she implied might have been himself forced into becoming a fighter, saying he had not treated her too badly, and that she “missed him.”
A month after she escaped, some members of “BringBackOurGirls” (BBOG) – an advocacy group campaigning for the safe rescue of the girls – expressed concerns over Nkeki’s whereabouts, saying she had been kept under close control by the government, and that she appears to be now treated as if she’s become a Muslim (which she would have done against her will).
President Muhammadu Buhari, himself a Muslim, had promised the government “will do everything possible” to ensure she receives the care to make a full recovery and to be reintegrated fully into society. But some of the group were concerned she had not been allowed to return to her Christian family, which they assumed would be a strong element in her recovery from trauma.
Rev. Joel Billi, president of the Ekeklesiya Yan’uwa Nigeria (EYN) Church, told World Watch Monitor that 201 of the kidnapped girls belong to his church.
“I would have celebrated even if one person was freed. I am very, very happy to hear that 21 of them are free,” he said. “My heart is also rejoicing that one day soon … the majority of them, if not all of them, are going to be freed.
“When I heard about this news, I said that the church has to come out and talk to the federal government. The church should be in forefront of all things because Anima, who was rescued few months ago, as I am talking, we don’t know where she is. This is to say we have mixed feelings about the whole thing.”
Meantime, in September, the Nigerian government had for the first time disclosed the details of its failure to secure the release of the girls during negotiations which began in July 2015, shortly after Buhari took office.
Three times the negotiations were derailed – once at the last minute, even after the president had agreed to free imprisoned Boko Haram fighters. Another time, talks failed because key members of Boko Haram’s negotiating team were killed.
Buhari, who has been criticized by parents and activists, again appealed for the parents’ trust.
In August, Boko Haram had released a video which appeared to show some of the Chibok girls looking physically weak and traumatized. It showed a masked man demanding the release of militants in exchange, and one girl, who called herself Maida Yakubu, asking her parents to appeal to the government.
In April, the Boko Haram group had released a separate video, apparently filmed on Christmas Day 2015 and broadcast on CNN – amongst other outlets – showing 15 of the girls pleading with the Nigerian government to co-operate with the militants for their release. The girls said they were being treated well but wanted to be with their families.
Some parents who attended a screening of that video in Maiduguri identified some of the girls. Two mothers, Rifkatu Ayuba and Mary Ishaya, said they recognized their daughters in the video, while a third mother, Yana Galang, identified five of the missing girls, Reuters reported. One mother said her daughter looked well, much better than she had feared, giving some hope to the families.
World Watch Monitor reports the parents have been under a lot of strain: at least 18 of them have died of stress-related illness; three others have themselves been killed by militants; many others have persistent health problems brought on by stress.
Forced to convert and ‘marry’
Most of the girls were reportedly forcibly converted to Islam, the agency stated. It is feared that many have been sexually abused and forced into “marriage” by their captors.
According to World Watch Monitor, a report by Nigeria’s Political Violence Research Network, “Our Bodies, their Battleground,” detailed this kind of treatment of minority Christians in northern Nigeria going back to 1999. It reveals how tremendously effective and efficient it is to focus attacks on women and girls – because the knock-on effects are devastating to the community. Entire families and Christian communities are thus “dishonored,” regularly leading husbands to reject wives who are victims of rape, and embarrassment and shame for their children.
World Watch Monitor explained the fact that Christian women and children suffer at the hands of Boko Haram is a carefully calculated part of the movement’s multi-pronged front-line offensive, designed to intimidate the population into accepting political-religious change, points out the report.
The use of rape was also justified by Boko Haram militants on the basis of “sex as jizya,” a reference to a tax that early Islamic rulers demanded from their non-Muslim subjects for their own protection.
The agency said that for hundreds of women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants, their ordeal did not end when they escaped, nor when Nigerian soldiers rescued them and reunited them with their families.
Instead of being admired for their bravery, many have become outcasts in their communities, stigmatized due to their perceived association with Boko Haram, reports humanitarian news agency IRIN.
Moreover, others – pregnant after rape by their captors – have been “shamed and are now accused of spawning or seeking to spawn future Boko Haram fighters,” says IRIN.
World Watch Monitor stated this all backs up actress Angelina Jolie’s message of “rape as a ‘policy’ aimed at terrorizing and destroying communities.” It’s a message she first spoke about at the UK Parliament in June 2014 and repeated at the House of Lords in September 2015.
“[Islamist groups such as] Islamic State are dictating [it] as policy … beyond what we have seen before,” said Jolie, a UN Special Envoy. The Hollywood actress said the groups know “it is a very effective weapon and they are using it as a center point of their terror and their way of destroying communities and families, and attacking and dehumanizing.”
Jolie shared stories of girls she had met in war zones, who had been repeatedly raped and sold for as little as $40. In 2014, she co-hosted a global summit in London, attended by representatives from more than 100 countries, aimed at raising awareness and tackling the issue of sexual violence in conflict, especially rape as a weapon of war.
International Christian Concern (ICC) — www.persecution.org — has also confirmed that 21 of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls have been released by Boko Haram.
ICC said that after more than two years since the kidnappings, the Nigerian government, with help from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, negotiated for the release of at least 21 girls. The girls were reportedly been handed over to the Nigerian government in exchange for four Boko Haram prisoners. This claim has since been denied.
ICC’s correspondent in Nigeria spoke to the Secretary of the Parents’ Forum, Lawan Zanah, who confirmed the reports. “It is true, they are our girls! We have now gotten a call from the Minister of Women Affairs to come to Abuja. We are getting ready to go tomorrow, the Chairman, myself and a few of the officials.”
A government official speaking on the condition of anonymity released five of the names to the parents on the phone. Maina, one of the parents, said, “The Military spokesman in Maiduguri, has announced it. The girls were moved from Maiduguri to Abuja.”
In April 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 teenage girls from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria. Within days following the tragedy, 57 girls escaped, but 218 remained in captivity until the release of 21 more and a Nigerian vigilante group found and rescued Amina Ali Nkeki on May 17 of this year.
Sara Solomon, ICC’s Regional Manager, said, “We have worked closely with the Chibok families over the years and have come to know the community. We are excited for the families whose daughters have been returned, but also know what a difficult journey awaits them. Some left as girls and return as traumatized women and even mothers. Still, there also remains the daunting task of rescuing the 196 girls who are still in captivity. Efforts must continue to rescue and rebuild the lives of all of these innocent victims.”
For interviews with Sara Solomon, ICC’s Regional Manager, please contact Olivia Miller, Communications Coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo captions: 1) Nigeria’s Vice President: ‘The whole country has been waiting that one day we will see you again.’ (Photo Nigeria VP Office). 2) “Rescue Our Chibok Girls” campaign truck 3) Even US First Lady, Michelle Obama, joined in the campaign from the White House. 4) Michael Ireland.
About the Writer: Michael Ireland is a volunteer internet journalist serving as Senior Correspondent for the ASSIST News Service, as well as an Ordained Minister who has served with ASSIST Ministries and written for ASSIST News Service since its beginning in 1989. He has reported for ANS from Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Israel, Jordan, China, and Russia. Please consider helping Michael cover his expenses in bringing news of the Persecuted Church, by logging-on to: https://actintl.givingfuel.com/ireland-michael
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