More than 80 of the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants three years ago in Nigeria have been released as part of an exchange for detained suspects from the militant group. This is the biggest breakthrough in the tragedy which has come to define West Africa’s eight-year conflict against Boko Haram.
Boko Haram has terrorized civilians in Nigeria for years since its insurgency in the early 2000s. Since its inception, the terrorist organization has launched many attacks throughout Nigeria. In addition to its mass abduction of 500 women and girls in 2009, the Islamist extremist group is also behind dozens of civilian casualties via massacres and suicide bombings.
Killings such as the 2012 massacre in northern Nigeria metropolis, Kano and a recent mass killing in Maiduguri have left the country scarred and the government in an ongoing stalemate of state military versus terrorists.
The terrorist group’s main objective is to destabilize the Nigerian government and install in its place an Islamic caliphate. Within recent years, the Boko Haram has resorted to targeting schools. This tactic may also have been inspired by the militant group’s namesake which translates to “Western education is forbidden.”
Between April 2013 and 2014, Boko Haram committed more mass kidnappings, including the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from Chibok, a secondary school located in a rural village in Borno State. Altogether, Boko Haram has abducted approximately 500 women and girls between 2009 and 2014.
Boko Haram seems to primarily target young women, most of “marriageable” age (between 9 and 15 years) and of Christian faith or background. The few lucky enough to escape Boko Haram have provided authorities and human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch with important intel on the fate of its victims.
According to its former prisoners, the terrorist group subjects its victims to physical and psychological torture in order to forcibly convert them to Islam. Those who refuse are punished as slaves. Victims reported being forced to cook, clean, carry ammunition, and even serve as accomplices in military operations. Many became brides and mothers. Others served as sex slaves.
However, the release of dozens of the abducted Chibok schoolgirls is a remarkable victory for the Nigerian government. After numerous negotiations, the terrorist group finally settled to an agreement. In exchange for the freedom of a few alleged Boko Haram members (who up until now were held in government custody), Boko Haram authorized the release of 82 girls.
The victims were freed near Banki, a village nestled along the northeastern Nigerian region bordering Cameroon. Purportedly, the girls are scheduled to fly to Maiduguri, a hotspot for Boko Haram activity.
Prior to this breakthrough, only 22 victims of Boko Haram had been rescued or discovered with the assistance of the Swiss government and the Red Cross’s International Committee. While Nigerian citizens launched a global campaign in response to the tragedy during the Chibok abductions, Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau remained relentless and remorseless. Rather than submit to international pressure, Shekau openly promised to sell the girls in marriage or as sex slaves “because they are our slaves.”
Although hundreds of girls still remain in captivity, the release of some of the #ChibokGirls stands as a glimmer of hope in this bleak, nearly decade-long war.
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