On Sunday, more than 80 young women kidnapped by Boko Haram from the village of Chibok three years ago were flown to Abuja, where representatives of Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari waited to meet them.
Buhari’s administration announced Saturday that in exchange for five Boko Haram suspects held by Nigerian authorities, the Islamic militants had released 83 of the women whose lives were interrupted when their Government Secondary School was overrun by insurgents in April 2014.
The outrage of the distraught mothers and heartbroken fathers of some 276 girls – all between the ages of 15 and 18 when they attended the boarding school – circled the globe. So too is the immediate joy and relief in knowing that these young women now join others who previously escaped or, as was the case in October 2016, were released in a similar negotiated exchange.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Swiss government helped broker the October deal to free the first 21 “Chibok girls,” and assisted with this latest release as well. In his statement, Buhari also thanked with “deep gratitude” the local and international NGOs, and military and security personnel involved.
“The President has repeatedly expressed his total commitment towards ensuring the safe return of the #ChibokGirls, and all other Boko Haram captives,” said Buhari spokesman Garba Shehu. Nigerian officials have faced fierce criticism for their failure to secure the girls’ safety and return, so the success of these negotiations comes as especially welcome news.
Yet more than 100 of the girls remain missing on what – according to Bring Back Our Girls campaigners who have never stopped fighting for them – is Day 1,119 since they disappeared in Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state. They are by no means the only victims of kidnappings that have affected more than 2,000 women and girls, according to a 2015 Amnesty International report.
‘No playbook’ for reintegrating Chibok students
The riveting first images of the young women crossing the airfield tarmac, and the minute-by-minute real time updates of their journey and arrival in Abuja, rightly focused on the jubilation in Nigeria. Yet with that arrival comes the bittersweet understanding that this is but the first step on a long path to rebuild their lives.
Amnesty International in Nigeria, now under the new leadership of human rights attorney Osai Ojigho, affirmed that the girls’ release was “a big relief.”
“However, it is vital now that they receive adequate physical and psychosocial counseling and support so that they can fully reintegrate in their communities,” Amnesty Nigeria said in its statement. “The government should also respect their privacy and ensure that the released girls are reunited with their families and not kept in lengthy detention and security screening which can only add to their suffering and plight.”
What has happened to some of the Chibok girls who have already returned from Boko Haram captivity?
Six of them now attend university after participating in a special program set up for the kidnapped girls at the American University of Nigeria in Yola, a few hundred kilometers to the south of their home village and the Borno region devastated by Boko Haram since 2009. Another 12 are completing their studies in the university’s New Foundation School program, to prepare them for further study.
These resilient girls are among nearly 60 who escaped on the first night of the abduction, and the first of them – offered scholarships by the university – arrived in August 2014. A report by PRI World in March 2017 recounts how the program was kept secret and built from scratch for their needs.
“There was no playbook to pull off the shelf and say, this is how you put together a program for students who just got away from a terrorist organization,” said assistant dean of student affairs Reg Braggs in his PRI interview.
The challenges for the girls themselves are far greater, since many of them were afraid and fought going back to school, couldn’t sleep at night or concentrate, felt overwhelmed by cultural differences from their conservative, agricultural and primarily Christian community – and feared daily for the fate of their friends. Today, they aspire to becoming doctors and lawyers, and are respected at home in Chibok.
Removing the barriers for Boko Haram victims
Sadly, that’s not yet the reality for others abducted from Chibok and other communities, including Damasak, where Boko Haram abducted an estimated 300 to 500 children in November 2014. When the first release of Chibok students came last fall – students who remained in Nigerian custody on arrival – their peers studying in Yola crowded around the TV set and rejoiced. It’s likely they have done the same now.
Yet that joy remains incomplete in Nigeria until all of the kidnapping victims are returned home. It also remains a scar across the Lake Chad region because of the complexities of the conflict, since many children abducted by Boko Haram are detained following their return. When they do arrive in their communities, they often face suspicion and rejection rather than compassion and support.
“The Chibok girls – and thousands of other children – have endured unimaginable horrors in captivity by Boko Haram,” note the authors of “Silent Shame,” a UNICEF report released last month to mark the three-year anniversary of the Chibok abductions. “Across the region, many children who have escaped or been liberated are now trying to rebuild their shattered lives against deep distrust of anyone associated with the insurgency.”
That distrust, whether rooted in fears of suicide bombers and security or for reasons of social cohesion, comes after those first steps on the tarmac and the reception promised by Buhari. “Communities are increasingly suspicious of children who have been linked to Boko Haram, creating barriers to reintegration and reconciliation,” the UNICEF authors warn, noting that their isolation and desperation makes them even more vulnerable and victimized than they already are.
That means that the journey of these Chibok students is just beginning. Today, we celebrate that these young women will now know many tomorrows. Tomorrow, the real work begins – and Nigeria owes it to these girls, and so many others, to be sure that mission is completed.