CALABAR, Nigeria—A month after Boko Haram kidnapped 110 girls from their secondary school in the northeastern Nigeria town of Daphi, the terrorists have returned 104 of their victims to the same area where they were seized.
According to witnesses who spoke to The Daily Beast, the militants, who were shooting in the air and shouting “God is greatest,” drove the girls in a convoy of nine vehicles and turned them over to the community. The jihadists left Dapchi as soon as they dropped off the schoolgirls.
“The girls were released around 3:00 a.m. (0200 GMT) through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country,” Information Minister Lai Mohammed said in a statement on Wednesday. "For the release to work, the government had a clear understanding that violence and confrontation would not be the way out as it could endanger the lives of the girls, hence a non-violent approach was the preferred option."
Mohammed later told Reuters that no ransom was paid to Boko Haram for the release of the girls. The militants, he said, only requested “not to release [the girls] to the military but release them in the town of Dapchi without the military presence.”
Most of the released girls initially returned to their homes, but were later asked by the military to report to a hospital in Dapchi for documentation and medical checks.
“Many of them looked tired and sick,” Musa Abdulrahman, a Dapchi resident who saw the girls as they returned, told The Daily Beast. “A few of them needed assistance to even walk.”
Boko Haram is known to be brutal toward its captives, with episodes of torture, forced marriage, and the rape of women in its custody. But so far no stories of such treatment have come from released Dapchi girls. Indeed, a few have spoken about relatively good treatment by their captors.
“They gave us food––in fact we cooked the meals ourselves, while we were kept in an enclosed place,” Fatsuma Abdullahi, one of the released schoolgirls told Daily Trust, a Nigerian Newspaper. “Not even an airplane would see us [in the place we were kept].”
Unfortunately, not all the girls kidnapped in February returned home. Five of them reportedly died in captivity as a result of the forced march while trekking to their hiding place, while one—the only Christian among those that were seized—is said to be held captive still because of her religious faith.
“We are so glad our daughter came back alive,” Inuwa Ahmed, whose niece was among those that returned, told The Daily Beast. “She’s looking sick, but we are happy to see her again.”
The schoolgirl still in Boko Haram’s custody has been identified as Liah Sharibu. Her father, Nata Sharibu, said on Wednesday that parents whose daughters were released by the militants told him that his daughter refused to renounce Christianity and that was the reason she is still being held.
“They gave her the option of converting in order to be released, but she said she will never become a Muslim,” Nata Sharibu told RayPower 100.5, a Nigerian radio station. “I am very sad but I am also jubilating, too, because my daughter did not denounce Christ.”
The schoolgirls were kidnapped from the Government Girls Science Secondary (GGSS) on Feb. 19 by jihadists who arrived in trucks mounted with heavy caliber weapons and headed to the hostel at the state-run boarding school for girls aged 11 and above. Many in the school escaped, but over a hundred were seized.
The Dapchi attack raised fears of a repeat of the 2014 Chibok kidnappings that provoked global outrage and a media campaign centered around the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. But unlike the incident in Chibok, where the initial response was slow, the government reacted to the Dapchi kidnapping by quickly negotiating with the militants. The outcome is now seen as a boost for President Muhammadu Buhari, who could seek reelection next February.
“We didn’t want to repeat the case of Chibok that cost the former president his job,” an official in the defense ministry told The Daily Beast. “Reacting the way we did in 2014 would have affected his chances [of reelection] next year.”
An official of the Department of State Services (DSS), Nigeria’s secret police, informed The Daily Beast that negotiations for the release of the Dapchi girls were conducted with a faction of Boko Haram led by Abu Musab al Barnawi, who is the son of the group’s founder, Mohammed Yusuf, and the emir recognized by the so-called Islamic State as the authentic leader of the sect.
When al Barnawi was appointed as the wali, or governor, of ISIS West Africa Province (as Boko Haram wants to be known), his first message as Boko Haram’s leader was as clear as it was concise—on his watch, the group’s main focus will be to target Christians. Based on his agenda, no one is surprised the group he leads still holds on to Liah Sharibu, who is refusing to give up her Christian faith.
“He will likely not let her go until she does as he pleases,” said Yusuf Mohammed, an Arabic scholar in Maiduguri who has studied al Barnawi closely. “We will have to wait and see how long she can keep up, and how long he can wait.”