“The moment I saw them and recognized their faces — Saratu Ayuba, Jummai Mutah, and Kwazigu Hamman — I started crying, with tears of joy rolling down from my eyes, thanking God for their lives,” she says.
The young woman, who now calls herself Saa and is going to college in the United States, was among several dozen who escaped, jumping down from the back of an open truck after Boko Haram had kidnapped them. The extremists seized 276 girls who had gathered for science exams at the Government Girls Secondary School in the northeast town of Chibok. There are 219 missing.
“Seeing them gives me the courage to tell the world today that we should not lose hope,” Saa said. “Let’s keep praying and campaigning for #BringBackOurGirls. I want the world to raise their voice. Let’s not stop until the government hears us and does something about it.”
CNN on Wednesday aired the video, believed made in December, of girls wearing the Islamic hijab, and of one mother reaching out to a computer screen as she recognizes her daughter.
“My Saratu,” she wails, before breaking down in sobs. She says Saratu was 15 when she was kidnapped and now is 17.
The video shows 15 of the girls — one with a mischievous grin, one looking uncompromising, downright defiant, and one downcast. One can feel the pain that shows in the eyes of many of them. They give the date as Christmas, Dec. 25, 2015.
While Boko Haram is thought to have abducted thousands of people over the years, the mass abduction brought the extremist group to the world’s attention. The campaign hashtag #BringBackOurGirls went as far as the White House, used by U.S. first lady Michelle Obama.
The failure of Nigerian officials and the military to rescue the girls brought international condemnation and contributed to President Goodluck Jonathan’s loss in elections last year.
Jonathan at first had denied there had been a mass abduction, but international pressure soon forced him to accept help from other countries.
The United States, Britain and France were among those that sent advisers, including hostage negotiators. U.S. and British drones located at least one group of about 80 of the girls, which was reported to Nigeria’s government and military, but nothing was done.
Andrew Pocock, who was British high commissioner to Nigeria until his retirement last year, told The Sunday Times magazine last month that it was considered too dangerous to the other girls to attempt a ground or air rescue. “You might have rescued a few, but many would have been killed. … You were damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” the magazine quoted him as saying.
Nigeria’s military has cited the same fears. Yet that has not stopped them from attacking towns and villages where Boko Haram has held thousands of civilians captive. The military boasted last week that soldiers have rescued 11,595 civilian hostages since Feb. 26.
But none has been from Chibok.
CNN reported that the “proof of life” video was sent in December to negotiators trying to free the girls. It shows an interview with Information Minister Lai Mohammed saying the government is reviewing and assessing the video.
Senator Shehu Sani, who has been involved in past negotiations with Boko Haram about the Chibok girls, told The Associated Press he found the video credible. Yakubu Nkeki, leader of a support group of parents of the kidnapped girls, said he briefly saw part of the CNN video, in between power blackouts frequent in Nigeria, and recognized some of the girls.
“We are all well,” one of the girls says in the video, emphasizing the “all.” There have been fears that Boko Haram’s increasing use of female children and adults to carry out suicide bombings indicates they are turning captives into weapons, including the Chibok girls.
The video ends with one of the girls appealing to Nigeria’s government to meet unspecified promises.
There’s been no word of the girls since May 2014, when Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said they had converted to Islam and threatened to sell them into slavery or forced marriage with his fighters. Many recently freed girls are pregnant.
Two mothers and 16 fathers have died since the mass abduction, some of them victims of Boko Haram attacks. Others died from illnesses blamed on stress, according to Nkeki, who spoke to the AP by phone from Chibok.
Nigeria’s Vice President Yemi Osinbajo is due in Chibok on Thursday for the anniversary of the kidnappings, Nkeki said, complaining the issue has become politicized. He said the community is angry that their only school remains in the ruins created by Boko Haram, which firebombed buildings as they took off with the girls.
Some 20,000 children in the town and its surroundings have no school to attend, he said Thursday as parents started gathering at the school to pray for the safe return of their daughters.
“Boko Haram has achieved its aim. They say they don’t want us to have Western education and our children don’t,” Nkeki said.
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