Nige­rian mil­i­tants free 82 school­girls

Boko Haram’s 2014 kid­nap­ping of 276 youths sparked world out­cry

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY KEVIN SIEFF kevin.sieff@wash­post.com

nairobi — Eighty-two Chi­bok school­girls were re­leased from Boko Haram in­sur­gents on Satur­day, ac­cord­ing to Nige­rian of­fi­cials, a ma­jor de­vel­op­ment in the case of the Is­lamist group’s most fa­mous vic­tims, the teenagers whose kid­nap­ping in­spired the #Bring­Back­Our­Girls move­ment.

After months of ne­go­ti­a­tions, the girls were ex­changed “for some Boko Haram sus­pects held by the au­thor­i­ties,” ac­cord­ing to a govern­ment state­ment. They are ex­pected to be sent to Nige­ria’s cap­i­tal on Sunday to meet the president.

In April 2014, Boko Haram kid­napped 276 girls from a sec­ondary school in the town of Chi­bok. That mass ab­duc­tion turned the in­sur­gent group, op­er­at­ing mostly in the coun­try's north­east, into a house­hold name across much of the world.

Then-first lady Michelle Obama tweeted a pic­ture of her­self hold­ing a plac­ard with the #Bring­Back­Our­Girls ap­peal.

A few dozen of the school­girls es­caped, but more than 200 re­mained in Boko Haram cus­tody un­til last Oc­to­ber, when 21 were re­leased as part of a ne­go­ti­a­tion with the mil­i­tants. Many won­dered what had hap­pened to the rest of the girls — whether they had been killed in a mil­i­tary op­er­a­tion, or forcibly mar­ried to fight­ers who would refuse to re­lease them.

Satur­day’s re­lease of 82 girls was joy­ous news for the town of Chi­bok and a vic­tory for Nige­rian President Muham­madu Buhari, who had pledged re­peat­edly that he would find and free the girls.

De­spite the fo­cus on the Chi­bok school­girls, the group makes up only a tiny frac­tion of the thou­sands of peo­ple ab­ducted by Boko Haram. In Da­masak, on the Nige­ria-Niger bor­der, about 500 chil­dren are still miss­ing, but they have re­ceived al­most no at­ten­tion within Nige­ria or in­ter­na­tion­ally. In many other towns and cities, hun­dreds more are still miss­ing. Some 1.8 mil­lion peo­ple are now dis­placed across north­east­ern Nige­ria be­cause of the con­flict, many of them liv­ing in near-famine con­di­tions.

The Nige­rian govern­ment has de­clared vic­tory in the fight against Boko Haram, but the group con­tin­ues to op­er­ate in many ru­ral parts of the coun­try’s north­east. Borno state, where the bulk of the fight has oc­curred, is the size of Bel­gium, and in­cludes vast tracts of for­est, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to lo­cate fight­ers — or their hostages — by air.

It is not clear which Boko Haram sus­pects were re­leased in ex­change for the girls. In­sur­gents have for more than a year been try­ing to use the girls as lever­age for a pris­oner ex­change. In a video re­leased last year, some of the kid­napped girls were shown plead­ing with the govern­ment to be­gin ne­go­ti­a­tions.

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