It is perhaps the best-received news ever announced by the Nigeria Defense Headquarters—that 293 women and girls have been rescued by Nigerian troops from Boko Haram camps in the Sambisa forest.
In various social media platforms, Nigerians are celebrating the news as if the war against terror had been won. They are giving rare applause to the military, which so many have criticized for being too laid-back.
“That 200 Girls and 93 women who were captives of the savages of Sambisa Forest are now rescued by our Military is best news for today,” an excited Oby Ezekwesili, convener of the Bring Back Our Girls movement, wrote on her Twitter handle.
“We rejoice for news of rescue of several of our female citizens from Sambisa forest by our military,” she added.
None of the Chibok schoolgirls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram almost exactly a year ago were among those rescued. Army spokesman Colonel Sani Usman said troops destroyed and cleared four militant camps in the rescue, but “but they are not the Chibok girls.”
The news, though, appears to bolster hopes for the girls’ return.
Tuesday’s rescue occurred during a mission to wrest back control of the Sambisa forest from Boko Haram. Officials say the forest is the group’s last major hideout.
“The military has only gone 25 kilometers [about 26 miles] into the forest as we speak and there’s still another 50 square kilometers [about 19 square miles] to cover in Sambisa, so having already found these girls is a great sign,” said a Nigerian Army colonel involved in the mission.
The rescued girls and women will be screened on Wednesday to determine whether they had been abducted or if they were married to the militants, one intelligence source said.
“Now they are excited about their freedom,” he said. “Tomorrow there will be screenings to determine whether they are Boko Haram wives, whether they are from Chibok, how long they have been in the camps, and if they have children.”
Military sources said some of the girls were injured, and some of the militants killed. Exact casualty figures were not disclosed.
Mohamed Ibn Chambas, United Nations Special Representative for West Africa, said this month that Boko Haram fighters seeking shelter in the Sambisa may be using some of the captured girls as human shields.
The forest is about 100 kilometers, about 62 miles, from the village of Chibok from where Boko Haram abducted the schoolgirls last year. Senior government officials say evidence suggests those girls might still be held in the Sambisa. Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno State, which has suffered the most since the insurgency began six years ago, said the assessment of most security agencies is that the girls remain in the forest.
“Hitherto we heard they were being held around the Gwoza and Damboa axis. But for now Damboa, especially the township, has been recovered and is relatively safe. Gwoza too has been recaptured,” Shettima said. “Thus, our hopeful assessment is that probably the girls are in the Sambisa forest and we hope that they would be found in good shape—the most important thing is to get them alive, and alive we shall get them.”
The 2014 Chibok abduction led to an international social media movement, #BringBackOurGirls, to rescue the girls. Some of the girls who escaped shortly after they were seized said they had been kept in Sambisa camps.
Nigerian forces backed by warplanes invaded the vast former colonial game reserve late last week as part of a push to win back territory from Boko Haram and perhaps find the girls. The Nigerian Army regards the takeover of Sambisa as one of its biggest goals.
“If we can win the battle of Sambisa, then we would have taken a step closer to winning this war,” said Aliko, a member of the Civilian Joint Task Force, a group of loosely affiliated vigilantes helping the military fight Boko Haram.
“Boko Haram has only succeeded there because the forest is vast and usually very dark, but we are ready for them. This time they’ll have nowhere to run to.”