Just two days after a vigilante group found one of the missing schoolgirls that had been kidnapped more than two years ago by the militant group Boko Haram from a government school in Chibok, Nigeria, a Nigerian military spokesman announced on May 19 that a second schoolgirl had been rescued in a military operation against the terror group. The recovery of the two young women is a victory for the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and the first real sign that an agonizing chapter in Nigeria’s ongoing fight with Islamist militancy may yet come to an end.
For parents of the remaining girls whose whereabouts are unknown, it is reason to start hoping again. “Well, you know, it just shows that God is working miracles, even when we start to lose faith,”Reverend Enoch Mark, the father and adoptive father of two of the missing women, tells TIME by telephone. “I expect to hear from my girls again.”
Nigerian army spokesman Sani Usman initially said in an emailed statement that Serah Luka had been among 97 women and children rescued by the military following clashes with Boko Haram in the country’s northeast. A day later the military spokesman corrected his account, saying that while Luka had been enrolled at Chibok government school at the time of the kidnapping, on April 14, 2014, she was not present that day and had been kidnapped at a later date and a different location.
According to Dauda Iliya, spokesman for the Chibok community in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, there is some confusion as to Luka’s identity: she was not on the original list of missing schoolgirls, which had been drawn up based on students registered to take exams at the time of the kidnapping. Iliya says Luka was definitely in captivity with the other schoolgirls, and likely has important information to share about the location and condition of the others. “This is undeniably good news. This young lady has come with a lot of information for the government to follow. This brings us closer to finding the rest of the girls.”
What remains in question, however, is how the remaining students will be treated if and when they are found. Other women and children who have escaped from Boko Haram — the terror group is estimated to be holding several thousand captives — have been rejected by their communities and treated with deep suspicion, for fear that they may have been brainwashed, or that they might have divided loyalties. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has repeatedly announced that female captives will be forcibly converted to Islam and taken as wives for his fighters.
According to escapees, rape is common, and many have returned from captivity pregnant or with small children. They are derided as “Boko wives,” and their children are often bullied and ridiculed, says Doris Yarrow, an activist who has helped other escapees from Boko Haram. “They are traumatized. Psychologically and culturally there is a stigma that makes it even harder for them to reintegrate into the community. It’s not going to be easy.”
Yarrow notes that the Chibok girls may in fact fare better, simply because their plight is so much better known than that of other women kidnapped by the terror group. And she takes heart in the fact that Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari personally met with Amina Ali Darsha Nkeki, the first girl to be rescued, on May 19. Nkeki had been discovered walking in the forest with a four-month-old baby and a man who said he was her husband. The government suspects that he is a Boko Haram fighter.
Nonetheless, Buhari cradled the infant in his arms when he met with Nkeki, a strong symbol of acceptance, says Yarrow. “The fact that Buhari took the baby in hands, it was a good example for the country. Any child is a gift from God. Even if comes from mad person, or a devil, it’s still a human being.”
Reverend Mark is anguished over the thought that his daughters might have been raped as well, but no matter what happens, he is prepared to take them back. “Yes, I am worried that there may be a baby,” he says. “But it’s not a problem. Our only prayer is let them come back.” Just as the rescue of two Chibok girls raises hope for the return of the others, their rapturous reception so far could make it easier for everyone else to come home.