The first missing schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram militants two years ago has been rescued. Amina Ali Nkeki was found on Tuesday (17 May) in the Sambisa Forest, close to the border with Cameroon.
Her return has now raised the hope that the rest of the 218 missing girls may yet be rescued.
Hosea Abana Tsambido, the chairman of the Chibok community in the capital, Abuja, told the BBC that Amina was found during a routine daily patrol by the Civilian Joint Task Force (JTF), a vigilante group set up to help fight Boko Haram.
“She was saying … all the Chibok girls are still there in the Sambisa, except six of them that have already died,” said Tsambido.
An uncle, Yakubu Nkeki, told AP that Amina was later reunited with her mother in Chibok. She was 17 when abducted and is now 19, he said. A neighbour in Mbalala told the BBC that Amina was found with a baby.
Vigilante leader Aboku Gaji told the BBC: “The moment this girl was discovered by our vigilantes, she was brought to my house. I instantly recognised her, and insisted we should take her to her parents.
“When we arrived at the house … I asked the mother to come and identify someone. The moment she saw her, she shouted her name: ‘Amina, Amina!’ She gave her the biggest hug ever, as if they were going to roll on the ground. We had to stabilise them.
“The mother called other relations to come out and see what is happening. The girl started comforting the mother, saying: ‘Please Mum, take it easy. Relax. I never thought I would ever see you again, wipe your tears. God has made it possible for us to see each other again.’
“Afterwards, we had to make them understand that the girl would not be left in their care. She must be handed over to the [authorities].”
Amina, along with 275 other schoolgirls, was kidnapped by Boko Haram from her dormitory in Chibok, on 14 April, 2014. Their disappearance eventually generated headlines around the world and fuelled a social-media storm, with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.
Joining the campaign were public figures such as American First Lady Michelle Obama and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a 2012 assassination attempt by the Taliban.
A month ago, the radical Islamist group released a video (timed to coincide with the second anniversary of the kidnap), showing some of the kidnapped girls. The 54 minutes of footage, apparently filmed on Christmas Day 2015 and broadcast on CNN – amongst other outlets – shows 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 of the parents who attended a screening of the video in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno, where Boko Haram has been strongest, identified some of the girls. Two mothers, Rifkatu Ayuba and Mary Ishaya, said they recognised 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.
It was the first potential evidence that the girls may be alive since May 2014, when the leader of the radical Islamic group released a video claiming the kidnapping of the school girls and that he had converted them to Islam. Some 170 among the 218 missing girls are members of the Church of Brethren (known also as EYN-Ekeklesiya Yan’uwa Nigeria).
Before last month’s video footage, their parents had not heard any concrete news. Rev. Enoch Mark, whose daughter and step-daughter are missing, said: “If I could talk to them, I would say, ‘Call upon the name of the Lord … and be patient’. As long as they’re living, there will be a time when they may be free.”
There have been many rumours – forced marriage with Boko Haram fighters, drugged girls becoming suicide bombers, and even that sightings were ignored by government forces – but none have offered any hope of returning the girls to their parents.
Other women rescued from Boko Haram camps claim to have seen the girls. According to their testimonies, some Chibok girls became Muslim fighters and others were segregated and treated well – for potential use in any bargaining.
Parents have found it hard that the Nigerian government has communicated little of the continued search, or what it says have been ongoing negotiations with Boko Haram to secure the girls’ release.
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.
The kidnap of the 276 school girls at one time is the largest single group of young women kidnapped in northern Nigeria, but there have been numerous others. A report detailing such treatment of minority Christians since 1999 is part of the evidence being presented to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to examine whether Boko Haram’s abduction of Christian children may constitute genocide, as the “forcible transfer of children”.
The vast majority of girls in the school were Christian. “Our Bodies, their Battleground” has been quoted extensively in Human Rights Watch’s submission to Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda.