Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Freed Chibok girls reunite with family in Nigeria

The uncle of one of the 82 Chibok schoolgirls released this week described his “amazing joy” after being reunited with his niece, who has been held captive by the Islamist militant group Boko Haram for three years.

“Today is a wonderful day,” said Yakubu Nkeki on Monday night. “I saw the girls and Maimuna. When she saw me, she ran and grabbed me and started crying. I was so overwhelmed.”

Nkeki, the chairman for the Chibok parents’ group and a primary school teacher who taught many of the schoolgirls, spent three hours with his niece Maimuna Usman, 20, and the other 81 former Boko Haram captives in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, where they have been kept since their unexpected release on Sunday.

“I was so happy to see her and so relieved that she looked fine, no scars or wounds on her body. She looked well kept. I can’t describe it.”

But his joy was tempered by concerns over when other parents would be allowed to see their daughters and for the wellbeing of the women and girls.

Nkeki met the minister of women’s affairs on Tuesday to discuss when the families can meet their daughters.

The women and girls, who were among the 276 mostly Christian schoolgirls seized from their dormitories in April 2014, causing an international outcry, were released last Sunday in exchange for five militant leaders, following months of negotiation by participants across two continents.

The families said their release gave them hope that others would soon be freed.

The girls will spend five to seven days undergoing medical and psychological tests. Nkeki said only he had been able to see the girls, although some parents had spoken to their daughters by phone. He said that when some of the schoolgirls were released in October 2016, “I shared the joy with other parents but with faith that we would get her too. Now as I celebrate with other parents I can see that my own niece is here.”

He said the parents of the other 81 girls were hoping they would be able to see them soon. “They want them to receive all the care from the medical staff but they also want to be reunited with them as soon as they can. We’re waiting on the government to let us know when this will be possible.”

He was happy the government had helped the girls, he said, but added that many of the relatives had “gone through hell in the last few years” and needed support.

Presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said the government was working to verify the identities of the girls, in order to reunite them with their families as soon as possible. A list of names was published last Sunday and photographs of them have been sent to the remote town of Chibok for cross-checking.

“When we had the first 21, because of similarities in names, more than two, three sets of parents came to Abuja. So, we don’t want to create that confusion,” Shehu told Agence France-Presse. “When they get the pictures, they see them and verify, then they come on board to Abuja to see their daughters.”

Shehu said he hoped the verification process would be concluded soon, and promised: “The government will not stop any parents from immediately establishing contact with their daughters.”

He also told the local TV station that one of the schoolgirls among a group of 83 that Boko Haram had agreed to release had refused to return because she had married a militant fighter.

The Nigerian government has been criticised previously for the length of time it has taken for former hostages to be reunited with their families.

Twenty-one of the girls’ classmates were freed in October. They are being kept in Abuja, ostensibly for schooling. In December, the parents of those girls were told by the government that they could not take their children back to Chibok, 500 miles (800km) away, because of the security situation. But the families said this had improved, and the young women were expected to return home.

Another parent, whose daughter was not on the list, told the Guardian the release had brought him hope that his own child would soon be free.

He said: “I rejoice with the parents because I understand what they are going through. It has been hard to go for three years without seeing or hearing from your child. Seeing other people’s joy makes me more hopeful that soon the government will rescue her too.”

The release deal was negotiated by Mustapha Zanna, once the lawyer of Mohammed Yusuf, the founder of Boko Haram. The girls were picked up in Red Cross vehicles and taken to Abuja in military helicopters, where they were met by Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari.

More than 100 of the girls remain in Boko Haram’s hands along with hundreds of other women and children, some of whom have been forced by the militants to carry bombs to busy areas and to kill themselves and civilians. The Chibok girls reached international attention when the hashtag #bringbackourgirls was promoted by Michelle Obama and other celebrities.

Manasseh Allen, a campaigner for the Bring Back Our Girls group, said: “Reaching the parents has been hard because they live in remote areas, so sometimes we have to call someone who then finds some of the parents in person. The government and the parents also want to leave space for the girls to have a debrief, which they’re having now and then medical tests and assessments.”

A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which acted as a neutral intermediary and organised the transportation of the girls and young women to freedom, said their privacy should be respected and they should be given support.

“For their own wellbeing, we are advocating the girls should be given privacy. They are going to need a lot of support for them to reintegrate into the community.”

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