Three Years Later, Nearly 200 Nigerian Schoolgirls Still Missing

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ABUJA, Nigeria — Lawan Zannah rejoiced last October when Boko Haram militants released his daughter, Maryam, one of 276  girls abducted in 2014 from their school in northeastern Nigeria. But his joy was tempered by the fact his niece, Aisha, was not among the group freed. “I miss my niece,” he said.

It said the extremists abducted more than 500 children in a separate incident in Damasak, but President Muhammadu Buhari has tried to cover it up.

Aisha is among two-thirds of the girls seized from Chibok three years ago Friday. As relatives mark the sad anniversary, they also lament how Nigeria’s government has failed to stamp out the terrorist group or find the 195 girls still missing.

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“We don’t think the Nigerian government is doing anything much about rescuing the girls. We are disappointed,” said Seshugh Akume, a spokesman for Bring Back Our Girls, an organization that turned a global spotlight on the mass kidnapping with the help of high-profile supporters like then-first lady Michelle Obama. “The general attitude is they wish everybody to keep quiet about it and move on because they get angry whenever the missing Chibok girls are mentioned.”

Not all abductions by Boko Haram have received that kind of publicity, according to Human Rights Watch. It said the extremists abducted more than 500 children in a separate incident in Damasak, but President Muhammadu Buhari has tried to cover it up.

“While international attention and concern has focused on the April 2014 Chibok schoolgirls’ abduction, hundreds of other children are also missing in Nigeria’s beleaguered northeast,” wrote Human Rights Watch senior researcher Mausi Segun. “Parents of the missing children are desperate for information, but have received little more than rumors.”

On Thursday, Buhari noted the anniversary as one of the worst crimes committed against Nigeria.

“I wish to reassure the parents of the Chibok girls, all well-meaning Nigerians, organizations and the international community, that as a government, we are unrelenting on the issue of the safe return of our children,” he said.

Bukar Mala, 49, a farmer whose son, Babagana, 13, went missing after Boko Haram attacked Damasak, said he’s not sure whether his son is still alive. “There’s no communication from the authorities on the fate of our children,” he said. “It’s as if our children just disappeared into the air.”

The Nigerian government did not respond to requests for comment on the Damasak incident or the search for the still missing Chibok girls.

Earlier this year, Buhari wrote a letter to Malala Yousafzai, the 19-year-old Nobel laureate who co-founded the Malala Fund for the education of young women, pledging to stop the militants.

“Rest assured, however, of the doggedness, commitment and sincerity of the Nigerian federal government towards ensuring the safe return of the Chibok girls, and indeed all others still in captivity,” he wrote in a letter released to Nigerian newspapers.

Buhari, who ran Nigeria as a military dictator in the 1980s, won office in 2015 on the promise of stamping out the insurgency. At the time, Boko Haram, which has aligned itself with the Islamic State, was burning villages, forcing women into sex slavery and recruiting children as soldiers while a bungling Nigerian military pursued them.

Two dozen Chibok girls freed after being held by Boko Haram for two years remain in government custody because authorities fear the girls were brainwashed and could be sleeper agents who might launch terror attacks.

Last year, after a series of victories against the terrorists, Nigerian forces sacked the group’s last remaining stronghold in the Sambisa Forest near the Cameroon border.

Today, Boko Haram mostly carries out small-scale suicide attacks on soft targets rather than tactical assaults involving hundreds of fighters. Recently, three suicide bombers were killed after detonating improvised bombs at a fuel depot in the northeast.

A decline in large-scale attacks is little comfort to Ba Ntakai Ndirmbita, whose daughter Hauwa, is one of the missing Chibok girls. “We are despairing and losing hope every day,” Ndirmbite said. “We no longer hear news about the government’s effort to rescue our children.”

Two dozen Chibok girls freed after being held by Boko Haram for two years remain in government custody because authorities fear the girls were brainwashed and could be sleeper agents who might launch terror attacks. Other freed girls have been shunned by families who believed they might infect others with the militants’ fanaticism.

Buhari said the government would rehabilitate the girls in custody, fund their education and help them pursue careers. Four gave birth to children of Boko Haram fighters.

The chairman of the Chibok Girls Parents’ Association, Yakubu Nkeki, said 21 of the girls had resumed lessons in a school in the capital here, while the other three are still in counseling.

Written by Ali Abare Abubakar, Special for USA TODAY

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