Abuja, Nigeria | AFP | A schoolgirl who was among more than 200 kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014 refused to be part of a release deal because she is now married to a militant fighter, Nigeria’s government said Tuesday.
The disclosure underlines the complex psychological effects of a lengthy captivity, and gives an indication of the work required to rehabilitate and reintegrate those released.
Boko Haram has used kidnapping as a weapon of war, seizing thousands of women and young girls as part of its eight-year quest to create a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.
Men and boys have also been forcibly recruited to fight in its insurgency, which since 2009 has killed at least 20,000 in Nigeria alone.
Presidency spokesman Garba Shehu said the jihadists had initially agreed to release 83 of the teenagers who were abducted from their school in the town of Chibok in April 2014.
But he told the local Channels television station: “One said, ‘No, I have a husband. I’m happy where I am’. And then 82 came back.”
The 82 were released on Saturday following months of talks and the exchange of a number of suspected militants held in government custody.
Twenty-one of their classmates were freed in October last year; three had previously been found or escaped. Talks are understood to have started to free all or some of the remaining 113.
– Complex situation –
Testimony from former hostages in the brutal conflict has revealed that Boko Haram forced many women and young girls into marriage, and that rape and sexual violence were commonplace.
Some were forced to work as domestic slaves for extremist fighters and even deployed to the front line carrying ammunition during attacks.
Elizabeth Pearson, a Boko Haram specialist who studies women and conflict, said the case of the Chibok girl who refused to leave was “likely to be quite prevalent”.
“From what we know of other young women who’ve returned, the relationships with their captors is very complex and at times quite ambiguous,” she told AFP in an email exchange.
“We assume because they are abducted they are therefore likely to resist their captors. In fact they have to develop relationships of some sort in order to survive.”
Genuine relationships will emerge, as not all fighters behave brutally to the women in the camps, particularly if children are involved, she added.
“It’s a much more complex situation than the abducted-rescued-victim narrative we’ve seen at times,” she said.
There have been repeated calls for more to be done to support those released, particularly with many women treated as social outcasts because of their time with the rebels.
– Identities checked –
Shehu said the government was working to verify the identities of the 82 released so they can be reunited with their families as soon as possible.
A list of the girls’ names was published on Sunday evening and photographs of them have been sent to Chibok and the surrounding area for cross-checking.
“When we had the first 21, because of similarities in names, more than two, three sets of parents came to Abuja. So, we don’t want to create that confusion,” he said.
“When they get the pictures, they see them and verify, then they come on board to Abuja to see their daughters.”
Aisha Yesufu, coordinator of the #BringBackOurGirls pressure group, told AFP: “We have to reach out to the parents and ensure that we match the parents and the daughters.
“We are still working on it.”
Nigeria’s government has come under fire for the length of time it has taken to reunite the former hostages with their families.
In December, families who are seen as key to the girls’ recovery complained they were blocked from celebrating Christmas together.
Human Rights Watch has accused the government of failing to respect the girls’ privacy by publishing their names and for parading them at a photo-call.
Amnesty International said on Saturday that holding the released girls in lengthy detention and for security screening “can only add to their suffering and plight”.
Shehu said he hoped the verification process would be concluded soon and pledged: “The government will not stop any parents from immediately establishing contacts with their daughters.”