Nigeria Chibok girls: Eighty-two freed by Boko Haram

Eighty-two Chibok schoolgirls freed after more than three years being held by a Nigerian militant group in a deal facilitated by the Red Cross have been flown to Abuja, as anxious families awaited an official list of names.

The women were photographed boarding a helicopter on Sunday morning, after the government negotiated their release in exchange for prisoners from Boko Haram, the group that abducted the Chibok students in April 2014.

The women were picked up in Red Cross vehicles and transferred to military helicopters. They were flown to the Nigerian capital where they are due to be received by the president, Muhammadu Buhari, who has recently been ill and working from home.

The International Red Cross (ICRC) told the Guardian that it had acted as a neutral intermediary and organised the transportation of the girls and young women to freedom. It also confirmed that it had carried out the transfer in the early hours of Sunday morning.
“We were not involved in the negotiations for their release, as negotiations often imply a political process which is contrary to the apolitical-neutral nature of the ICRC’s work,” said a spokeswoman. “Therefore, we cannot make comments on the conditions agreed by the parties for their release [or] whether there are more so called ‘Chibok girls’ in the hands of the armed opposition.”
They are expected to be reunited with their families on Sunday, she added.
Family members said they were awaiting a list of names, and their “hopes and expectations are high”.

The negotiations were led by the former lawyer to Mohammed Yusuf, the late founder of Boko Haram, according to Shehu Sani, a Nigerian senator. Sani told the Guardian he introduced this lawyer-turned-negotiator to the government and came up with a road map for the talks.
Meetings took place in Bern in Switzerland and in Sudan, he added, and involved the Swiss government and the ICRC.
Buhari’s office said the Chibok schoolgirls were freed in exchange for “some Boko Haram suspects held by the authorities”.
Two of the 82 girls are physically injured, Sani said: one has a wrist injury and the other is on crutches.

An unnamed Nigerian military official with direct knowledge of the rescue operation told Associated Press the women were found near Banki, a town close to the border with Cameroon. Boko Haram remains active in the area, despite claims by Buhari that the militant group has been crushed and forced from its last forest hideout.
The newly released women were among 276 mostly Christian students abducted when Boko Haram overran a school in Chibok, in Nigeria’s northern Borno state. The mass abduction highlighted the growing risk posed in Nigeria by the group, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

Many of the captives were forced to marry militants, and others are feared to have been been used as suicide bombers.
“This is a very, very exciting news for us that we have over 80 of our girls coming back again,” Bukky Shonibare with the #BringBackOurGirls campaign told Sky TV. “Their life in captivity has been one that depicts suffering, it depicts the fact that they have been starved, abused, and as we have seen before some of those girls have come back with children, and some of them have also come back with news of how they have been sexually abused.”

The Chibok abduction also led to a worldwide #bringbackourgirls social media campaign that drew contributions from Angelina Jolie, Hillary Clinton and Kim Kardashian. The then US first lady, Michelle Obama, gave a press conference vowing to help secure the, students’ release, and David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister at the time, also pledged help. The campaign, coupled with domestic outrage in Nigeria, increased the pressure on the Nigerian government to tackle Boko Haram and its growing insurgency in the country’s north.

An international taskforce, including specialists from the British and US military, launched a hunt for the students, but this was unsuccessful. A retired diplomat told the Sunday Times last year a large group had been spotted months after the abduction, but no action was taken, partly because of the difficulty of launching military action without putting the captives at risk.

But there were signs of their survival, including several who escaped shortly after their abduction, a girl who was found pregnant, wandering in the forest, and videos released by Boko Haram. In one video, released in August 2016, a girl told the camera some of her fellow captives had been killed in airstrikes, and relayed a message demanding the release of Boko Haram prisoners in exchange for their freedom.
Twenty-one girls and young women were released by Boko Haram in October 2016 in a similar deal. Red Cross was also involved in the transfer of the former captives. At the time, it was announced 83 further captives would be released soon. According to a tally by AP, 113 of the Chibok girls remain unaccounted for.

The plight of the abducted captured the public imagination, but Boko Haram staged many similar abductions in the surrounding months as its insurgency grew. In 2015 Amnesty International estimated at least 2,000 women and girls had been abducted since the start of 2014, with many sold into sexual slavery or trained to fight. Former abductees told the charity how captives were regularly raped, others were forced into marriage, and those who refused to convert to Islam or to fight on Boko Haram’s behalf were often killed.

The ICRC spokeswoman said: “Regretfully, in addition to the Chibok group, there are also numerous other examples of such events and of the trauma and suffering that families across the Lake Chad region have had to endure.
“Numerous families in the north-east of Nigeria, including many children and arrested persons, have lost contact with their relatives because of the on-going conflict. All efforts must be made to restore contact between them and their relatives and, where possible, reunite them. The families waiting for news of their loved ones, need support to cope with their absence.”
Nigeria Chibok girls: Eighty-two freed by Boko Haram Nigeria Chibok girls: Eighty-two freed by Boko Haram Reviewed by Nene Sochi-Okereke on Sunday, 7 May 2017 Rating: 5

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