There were emotional scenes Saturday as 82 kidnapped Chibok girls released by Boko Haram Islamists earlier this month were reunited with their parents.
At the reunion held in Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, fathers gripped their daughters in tight hugs, while mothers shrieked with joy, wiping away tears streaming from their eyes.
One beaming father picked his daughter up and swung her around in the air.
They hadn’t seen each other since April 2014, when the jihadists snatched over 200 schoolgirls from their dormitories in northeast Nigeria.
“I’m feeling very happy, I was dancing with her, she’s very happy,” said Yakubu Nkeki, whose niece Maimuna — who he has raised as his own child — was among the 82 released.
“Everyone was dancing today, even the old ones, everyone was dancing,” Nkeki told AFP.
“All of us had lost hope, we thought the girls would not be returned.”
– High profile victims –
Nkeki, who represents the Chibok parents, said that they would attend a church service with the girls on Sunday, before returning home early next week.
In the meantime the girls would stay in a government facility in Abuja where they are receiving therapy and vocational training.
Nigeria’s minister for women Aisha Alhassan has said that the government’s goal is to have all the rescued Chibok girls back in school by September.
But the Nigerian government has been criticised for keeping the girls in their custody and limiting access to their parents.
“Authorities should clarify to families whether the rescued girls are being held in preventive detention or as criminal suspects,” said Human Rights Watch in a May statement.
The human rights organisation added that the Nigerian government should also be working to secure the release of those kidnapped by Boko Haram, not just the schoolgirls.
“While the Chibok girls are the highest profile victims of Boko Haram’s abductions, authorities should extend the negotiations for release to other missing adults and children,” it said.
– Ongoing negotiations –
Boko Haram has used kidnapping as a weapon of war, seizing thousands of women and young girls in its quest to create a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.
Boko Haram seized 276 girls from the remote town of Chibok in April 2014, triggering global condemnation and drawing attention to the bloody insurgency decimating the region.
A #BringBackOurGirls hashtag campaign went viral, endorsed by A-list celebrities and politicians alike, putting pressure on former president Goodluck Jonathan to tackle the Islamists.
In the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping, 57 girls managed to escape. Of the 219 who did not manage to flee, 106 have either been released or found.
The group of 82 girls was released in May in exchange for five Boko Haram commanders following months of negotiations brokered by the Swiss government and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Twenty-one of their classmates were freed in October last year, while three others had previously been found or escaped.
The Nigerian government has said it is still in talks to release the remaining 113 girls in captivity.
Since the time of the Chibok kidnapping in 2014, Boko Haram has lost significant swathes of territory to the Nigerian government.
Yet the Islamists still pose a threat to the ravaged region, which is suffering from a food crisis as a result of the eight-year insurgency that has left at least 20,000 people dead and displaced more than 2.6 million from their homes.