A Long, Slow Homecoming for Chibok Schoolgirls Freed by Boko Haram

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — A wave of relief washed over Yama Pogo as he searched the names. His daughter’s was there, No. 51, on a list of girls who had been freed after being kidnapped by Boko Haram militants three years ago from their school in the village of Chibok.

But nearly a week has passed and Mr. Pogo has yet to see his daughter, Margret Yama.

She and the 81 other girls who were released Sunday in a prisoner swapnegotiated by the Nigerian government and Boko Haram are in the custody of the government in Abuja, the nation’s capital, where they are undergoing medical and security screening.

But apart from the president and other government officials, only a handful of advocates for the girls have been allowed to visit them. Officials have said families will likely reunite with the girls next week.

That is not soon enough for Mr. Pogo. He is relieved Margret is free, but he is so anxious to see her that he’s been unable to sleep.

“Imagine a father who hasn’t seen his daughter for three years,” said Mr. Pogo, who like many other parents of the freed girls is at home in Chibok awaiting clearance from the government. “You should know, three years is a long time. It is not three weeks or months. So how does that father feel?”

The release of the 82 girls was a significant victory in the Nigerian government’s fight against Boko Haram. Its campaign under President Muhammadu Buhari has diminished the group so substantially that officials were unconcerned about releasing five detained Boko Haram commanders in exchange for the girls.

Nigerian officials have said they plan to immediately negotiate for the release of the dozens of other missing girls who were among the nearly 300 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram fighters who stormed their school in the middle of the night in April 2014, loaded them onto trucks and sped away.

Officials had said that one girl with the 82 others had refused to be released, choosing to stay with Boko Haram.

On Saturday, Boko Haram released a video purporting to show that girl, veiled and holding an AK47. Flanked by three other veiled girls, she claimed to be among those kidnapped from Chibok and said she refused to return home to her relatives “because they live in the town of unbelief.”

“We want them to accept Islam,” she added, according to local media.

In another video, Boko Haram purported to show the five commanders who were swapped for the girls. The clip issued imminent threats to bomb Abuja. The authenticity of the videos could not be verified.

Last October, Boko Haram released 21 other girls to the government. Officials this week said three more schoolgirls kidnapped in the same abduction had been recovered since then.

Mr. Pogo’s anxieties echo those of the relatives of the first group of released girls. They, too, have complained that the Nigerian government has restricted their access to their daughters and nieces who are living in government custody in Abuja. The issue was amplified over Christmas when the government shuttled the girls to their hometown for a family visit. Parents visited the girls but had expected they would spend the night in their homes and attend church services with them. Instead government officials kept them elsewhere, saying security was an issue.

This week, officials said they could not reunite the newly released girls with their families until they verified the girls’ identities and matched them with their relatives. They were circulating photos to family members, many of whom were scattered across the rural countryside of the northeastern part of Nigeria where both internet service and smartphones are rare. Officials also were organizing transportation for 82 families to Abuja, about a four-hour drive from Chibok.

Officials said they were trying to avoid a scenario that played out in October when some families traveled to Abuja only to learn that their loved ones were not among the group.

The government is now trying to meticulously match families with girls, some of whom use nicknames or share last names with other hostages. During the three years of captivity, many of the girls have gone through adolescence and may appear different than when their parents last saw them.


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