Last week, the mother of a Chibok schoolgirl abducted in 2014 by Boko Haram militants got the call she had long been waiting for: A representative of the town of Chibok said her daughter was among the 82 girls just released by Boko Haram militants to the Nigerian government.
But the mother’s joy was tempered by anxiety. “She said, ‘Until I actually set eyes on my daughter I will not know she has been returned,'” says R. Evon Idahosa, a spokeswoman for Bring Back Our Girls (BBOG) who was present when the call arrived.
The uncertainty should be resolved on Friday at the scheduled reunion of family members and the girls in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital. When she does see her daughter, the mother told Idahosa that she “will carry her [daughter] on her back like a baby.”
But what lies ahead for the girls after the reunion remains unclear, especially if one looks for clues amid conflicting reports about the status of the 21 Chibok girls who were released by Boko Haram last October and three others who regained their freedom last year.
The one thing agreed upon by all parties is that those 24 girls are still in custody of the government, not the care of their families. Pernille Ironside, UNICEF’s deputy representative in Nigeria, told NPR in an email that these girls are still under government care, are receiving counseling, health care and vocational training, and that their families have been able to visit them. The Nigerian government maintains that these are security precautions to protect the girls from the stigma, ostracism and discrimination commonly faced by those returning from Boko Haram captivity.
But no one knows exactly where those girls are. They are reportedly in Abuja, but their exact whereabouts have been kept secret. The government says the secrecy is for the well-being and safety of the girls.
“Are they being held as prisoners or is this protective custody?” asks Mausi Segun, senior Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch. She wonders why “the families who have been longing for them” have had so few opportunities to see them. Some parents say they have not had visiting rights and do not know where their girls are.
In addition, during a highly publicized visit last Christmas by the girls to Chibok, the girls were not allowed to go to church with their parents or to stay over at their family homes, remaining instead at a politician’s house. Idahosa, who is also the executive director of the anti-sex trafficking NGO PathFinders Justice Initiative, says that some of the families have told BBOG that their phone calls are limited to two to three minutes and they’re not allowed to ask their daughters about their time in captivity.
Last week the government announced that both groups of girls will be returning to school or to their families in September, though exact details are not yet available. Little has been made public about the specific strategies provided these girls for helping them rejoin and reintegrate with their Nigerian communities.
In time, Idahosa believes, the Chibok girls “will be able to resume some sort of normalcy.” She takes hope from the fact that Nigeria President Muhammadu Buharai, who often says that “the girls have suffered the worst and it is time for them to enjoy the best,” has suggested that that the government intends to assist them for the long-term.
“What we’re trying to do is implore the government to bring the girls back home to their families,” says Idahosa.
Meanwhile, there are still 113 Chibok girls who have not been rescued or freed. In addition, thousands of other women have been abducted or subjected to sexual violence by Boko Haram.
Diane Cole writes for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Jewish Week, and is book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker. She is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges. Her website is dianejcole.com.