Among at least 4,000 Nigerian women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram since the start of its insurgency, the most high-profile are the schoolgirls abducted in April 2014 from the Government Girls’ Secondary School in Chibok, Borno State. Most were from Christian families.
The terrorists drove into Chibok in seven Toyota pick-ups at about 10 pm on 14 April 2014 and overpowered security guards at the school before herding over 270 students between the ages of 16 and 20 into the trucks. The students were staying at the school while taking their Senior School Certificate Examination.
Of the 276 girls kidnapped, 57 escaped and the remaining 219 were driven away to the vast Sambisa Forest, a 60,000 km² former game reserve close to the border with Cameroon. Boko Haram’s leader offered to release the girls in return for jailed militants, but the government rejected the swap.
In May 2014 Boko Haram released a video purporting to show 130 of the kidnapped girls dressed in hijabs, reciting from the Quran. In the video, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau said that the girls had converted to Islam.
On 17 May 2016, the vigilante Civilian Joint Task Force found one of the missing girls, Amina Ali, with a baby in the Sambisa Forest. She was apparently searching for firewood and escaped when the Nigerian army bombed the Forest and the terrorists scattered. She said six girls had died and the others were married to Boko Haram commanders and were still in the Forest, heavily guarded. She reported that some had suffered broken legs or had been deafened by explosions. Amina’s Boko Haram husband left the Forest with her, having allegedly surrendered.
In September 2016, Nigeria’s Information Minister said that negotiations for a prisoner swap almost led to the rescue of the girls in 2015, but that three times the negotiations collapsed.
On 13 October 2016, Boko Haram released 21 of the Chibok schoolgirls, following negotiations. Another girl was found in the Sambisa Forest on 5 November, and on 5 January 2017 the Nigerian army said soldiers had found one more girl, with a 6-month-old baby, while they were interrogating Boko Haram suspects detained in the Sambisa Forest.
On 6 May 2017, Boko Haram released 82 more of the kidnapped girls in exchange for five Boko Haram commanders. Negotiations involved the Swiss government and the Red Cross. On 4 January 2018, the Nigerian Army announced that its troops had found another Chibok girl in the Sambisa Forest.
On 21 July 2021, Ruth Ngladar Pagu escaped after seven years in captivity when her terrorist “husband” surrendered to the Nigerian military. Ruth gained her freedom with two small children. Around the same time, a young woman named Hassana Adamu also presented herself to the military. She is believed to be one of the few Muslims among those abducted.
On 10 January 2022, Nigeria’s Chief of Defence Staff General Lucky Irabor said in a television interview that one of the Chibok girls had been rescued around three weeks earlier.
In June 2022, Nigerian military sources reported that troops had rescued two more in Borno state, each with a child: Hauwa Joseph in Bama and Mary Ngoshe in Gwoza. Both were taken for medical treatment. Troops rescued another young woman, Ruth Bitrus, with her son on 29 June in Bama, Borno State after they escaped from a Boko Haram camp about 9 km away in the Sambisa Forest. She said her terrorist husband was killed by a bomb while trying to plant it against troops.
In July 2022, troops found two more young women, Hannatu Musa and Kauna Luka, in Bama Local Government Area, Borno state, during military operations against extremists in northeast Nigeria. They and their children had escaped from the camp where they were being held (one woman has one child, the other has two) and were taken to a military medical facility. On 13 August it was reported that another former schoolgirl, Aisha Grema, had also been brought to safety, along with her four-year-old child.
On 29 September 2022 Nigerian Army troops rescued a young woman named Yana Pogu with her four children (two boys and twin girls) during a clearance patrol, while on 2 October troops rescued Rejoice Sanki with two children. The two women were found during separate operations against terrorists in Borno State. They and their children underwent medical examination before being passed over to the care of the Borno government.
Three more young women also found freedom in the second half of 2022: Falmata Lawal and Asabe Ali with one child each; and Jinkai Yama with three children.
On 21 April 2023 Nigerian troops rescued Hauwa Maltha and Esther Marcus when they were fetching water in the forest. Hauwa was rescued with a three-year-old daughter and gave birth to a baby boy a week after her rescue, but she had lost two other children to sickness while in captivity. Hauwa had been married three times while Esther, who was rescued with a one-year-old baby girl, had been married twice. Two weeks later, on 6 May, troops found another of the missing young women, Saratu Dauda, but her three children remained with the Boko Haram militant she had been forced to marry.
This leaves 93 young women still missing. It is thought that some may have been radicalised and do not want to leave their Boko Haram husbands, but at least six have died, according to Amina Ali and Boko Haram commanders, who claim some were killed by Nigerian Army bombs.
In October 2018, a Nigerian woman named Jumai from a town near Chibok, who was taken hostage with her six children by Boko Haram in 2014 and was held with six of the Chibok schoolgirls, escaped and brought news of them to their parents. She said that 38 of the Chibok girls were kept in one camp and 25 others in a different location. The escaped woman told Reuters that in the camps Boko Haram militants do not allow free movement for their “wives”, but that one of the girls, Dorcas Yakubu, who had declared in a Boko Haram propaganda video that she was unwilling to return home, had some freedom.
The Chairman of Chibok Girls Parents Association, Yakubu Nkenke, told Nigerian online magazine Daily Trust in October 2018 that some other women who had escaped from Boko Haram captivity said the girls were being kept in two villages in northern Cameroon. “Seven of the abducted Chibok girls are living in Garin Magaji, while fifty others are held in Garin Mallam, where they live with their husbands and children,” he said.
“Bring Back Our Girls”
The Bring Back Our Girls social media campaign (#BringBackOurGirls), begun in 2014, gained worldwide publicity for the missing Chibok schoolgirls, supported by celebrities including Michelle Obama. It continues to raise public awareness about the case.