Boko Haram: Why would 100 Chibok girls want to stay with their captors?

A Chibok community leader says that 100 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram fear the stigma they may face upon returning home after spending more than two years as prisoners of the extremist group.

Olamikan Gbemiga/AP
Family members celebrate after being reunited with the kidnapped girls during an church service held in Abuja, Nigeria, on Sunday. Nearly 200 more remain in captivity, half of whom do not want to return home, according to a community leader.

After spending two and a half years in captivity, freed Chibok girls abducted by Boko Haram militants face another hurdle: acceptance back home.

On Thursday, 21 freed girls began their journey back to the remote village Chibok, from where nearly 300 were kidnapped in a mass abduction by northeast Nigeria-based extremist group Boko Haram in 2014. Dozens escaped soon after the abduction, and 21 were freed last week after negotiations. Now, 197 are believed to remain in captivity while Nigeria negotiates the release of 83 more girls.

But some 100 girls still in captivity say that they want to stay with their extremist captors, Pogu Bitrus of the Chibok Development Association told the Associated Press.

"We would prefer that they are taken away from the community and this country because the stigmatization is going to affect them for the rest of their lives," he said. "Even someone believed to have been abused by Boko Haram would be seen in a bad light."

While many parents came to greet their daughters in a tearful reunion on Sunday, some in Nigeria fear that militants may have radicalized the girls, compelling them to recruit others to join the group upon returning home. They also say that the girls' children, born of rape, could be tainted by the militants’ “bad blood.”

"Women and girls held by Boko Haram have fear and anxiety about how their families and communities will receive them,” Patricia Grey, head of women’s protection and empowerment for the International Rescue Committee in northeast Nigeria, told Reuters. “People being scared of you is traumatizing in its own right."

"People often call former captives Boko Haram supporters or the enemy, and this could hinder girls getting the help they need as they fear the abuse will be even worse if they do so,” she added.

The freed girls will receive assessment for depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. While their transition home will likely prove a difficult adjustment, the girls may face less stigma than others, as the national spotlight placed on the mass kidnapping led many to feel sympathetic for them.

"Some of them came back with babies, but think about it, are we going to kill the children?" Muta Abana, one of the girl’s fathers, told AP, speaking in Hausa. "We won't be able to kill the children because it would be as if we don't want the girls to come back. God knows why it happened. It's God's will."

Still, Nigeria’s lack of mental health resources can create additional barriers, leading many to question whether or not the girls will receive the care they need or struggle with the reality of their abductions for much longer.

"We end up with girls and women that are suffering in silence," Somiari Demm, a psychologist who counseled former Boko Haram captives sponsored to go to the United States to study, told Reuters. "Any attempts to reintegrate these girls into an unstable environment will only create more instability, and exacerbate their trauma.”

But many families, who have wondered for years if they would ever see their daughters again, are optimistic about the future. 

"By God's grace she is back," Hawa Abana, the mother of one of the released girls, told Al Jazeera. "She will go back to school. Boko Haram has no power again."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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