Dozens of schoolgirls from the northern Nigerian community of Dapchi were returned early Wednesday morning, dropped off by the same group of Boko Haram militants who kidnapped them more than a month ago as they offered a stern warning to never go back to school again.
The surprising turn of events was greeted with joy from parents whose daughters were safely returned, but the relief was tempered by suspicions that several girls had died while in the hands of the militants. At least one is apparently still being held.
Jauro Usman, a resident of Dapchi who is close to many of the parents of the kidnapped girls, said those who had been reunited were “very, very happy.”
“Boko Haram came themselves and dropped our daughters,” he said.
The return of the girls might wind up as a major propaganda coup for Boko Haram as villagers had been outraged at the way Nigerian officials had handled the girls’ capture, and some questioned why the military did not launch a rescue operation.
Initially, federal officials had stayed silent, and later local officials inaccurately told parents that the girls had been rescued, prompting a small riot by parents whose hopes were dashed.
On Wednesday, the families were upset that the government wanted the girls to travel to Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, apparently for a debriefing by security officials, when their parents just wanted them home.
American military officials have said they believe that the faction of Boko Haram responsible for the kidnapping was backed by the Islamic State, which has criticized the kidnapping of Muslim students. The student who is apparently still being held is a Christian. Her fellow captives have told their families that she refused militants who wanted her to convert to Islam.
On Wednesday morning, the militants drove three of the girls to their homes in other villages, residents said. Others were delivered to a bus station along a freeway outside Dapchi.
Bukar Usman, a resident of Dapchi, said he had shaken hands with the insurgents, who warned residents that girls should not be in school but should instead be married off. The militants threatened to return if the girls went back to school.
Government officials said that at least 104 of the 110 girls who had been kidnapped had been returned, but that the total number of freed students was still being tallied. Another girl and boy, who were not identified, also were released at the same time.
The girls were released at about 3 a.m. “through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country,” according to a statement from Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s information minister.
Babale Abubakar, a local government worker, said one released student had told him that five girls, who had been fasting before their abduction and were therefore already in a weakened state and extremely thirsty, had died while being held captive.
Other news outlets said five captives had been trampled in overcrowded trucks.
One of the released students, Maryam Adamu, said that Leah Sherubu, the Christian girl who was still being held, was in tears as the other girls were being rounded up to be returned.
On the evening of Feb. 19, militants dressed in army fatigues stormed the secondary school for girls in Dapchi. Nigerian officials faced heavy criticism for failing to prevent the attack, which came almost four years after a similar kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in the northern community of Chibok. Dozens of the Chibok girls are now free, in large part because of ransoms paid by the government, but more than 100 are still being held.
In Dapchi, the military had dismantled a checkpoint in the weeks before the kidnapping. Amnesty International said that at least five people had called security forces in the hours before the attack to warn them that Boko Haram was heading to Dapchi, but no help arrived.
Boko Haram, whose name can be loosely translated as “Western education is forbidden,” was founded years ago by adherents who wanted to create an Islamic state, hoping it would put an end to years of corruption and neglect by government officials.
In past years, as it became increasingly violent, Boko Haram has been dogged by infighting and has split into factions, the most significant of which received the backing of the Islamic State.
That faction two years ago criticized the kidnapping of any Muslim students who were among those taken from the school in Chibok, said Jacob Zenn, an African affairs fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research organization.
Mr. Zenn said the Islamic State in the past had offered alternatives to killing schoolchildren, condoning the murders of male students only if it was clear that the boys would later join the Nigerian military.
“It is possible this attack was genuinely a warning against Western education to the families of Dapchi and northern Nigeria more generally,” Mr. Zenn said.
In at least one case, the threat worked. One of the abductees, Hauwa Lawal, 14, told her parents that she was not going back to school again, said Abubakar Mohammed, 31, who sometimes keeps Hauwa at his house when her parents are out of town.
Hauwa told her family that the Boko Haram fighters were good to the girls and fed them rice and corn dishes, gave them water, did not touch them and offered them Islamic training while telling them to avoid Western schooling, according to Mr. Mohammed. They would not let the girls bathe, however.
But fighters told the girls to stop listening when people said that the group brainwashed, poisoned or harmed its captives, Mr. Mohammed said.
Mr. Mohammed said that parents in other towns had called ahead after Boko Haram dropped off the first three girls at their homes to alert Dapchi residents that militants did not appear to have violent intentions.
“Some of us were running towards them, but it felt like suicide to run to Boko Haram,” Mr. Mohammed said. “At the same time, they had our daughters.”
The girls told their parents that they had been kept in what seemed to be a forest; the militants told some of the girls they were in nearby Niger, according to several accounts from returned girls. They heard aircraft flying overhead. It took them days to get back to Dapchi, and they crossed desert terrain and bodies of water.
Zainab Abubakar, one of the returned students, said that while with Boko Haram the girls were moved from place to place, apparently to avoid detection from security forces.
President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria said on Twitter that no ransom had been paid for the girls. The statement from the information minister indicated that security forces had stood down on Wednesday “to ensure free passage and also that lives were not lost.”
The government of Nigeria paid millions of dollars in ransoms and released high-level Boko Haram commanders in exchange for the release of students from the school in Chibok. The ransom payments have led critics to express worry that they could inspire more kidnappings.
On Wednesday, Reuters reported that some parents of missing Chibok girls were in Dapchi, having traveled there to share their grief over missing daughters. Instead they watched as the parents were reunited with their girls.
Source: NY Times