Almost three years after Boko Haram militants kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from the remote Chibok community in northern Nigeria, soldiers found another one of the captives alive Thursday, along with her 6-month-old baby.
The discovery re-energizes hope among those who have rallied around the slogan "Bring back our girls" since the mass abduction drew worldwide attention to the country's conflict and humanitarian crisis, which have left more than 20,000 dead and displaced 2.6 million. With nearly 200 girls still missing, however, the discovery also highlights how this conflict could be far from over.
When a handful of soldiers defending the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok ran out of ammunition and fled on April 14, 2014, militants stormed the facility and seized 276 girls who were there preparing for their science exams. Dozens escaped within the first few hours, but most of them remained captive under Boko Haram control.
The first of the Nigerian schoolgirls to escape was found last May – more than two years after her kidnapping – nursing a 4-month-old baby on the fringes of the forest, and 21 more captives were released in October as part of a deal brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government. (Sources told the AP and BBC that the girls were exchanged for several Boko Haram fighters, but the Nigerian government denied that claim.)
Reports last fall suggest that about 100 of the girls would prefer to remain with their captors.
"Women and girls held by Boko Haram have fear and anxiety about how their families and communities will receive them," Patricia Grey, the head of women's protection and empowerment for the International Rescue Committee in northeast Nigeria, told Reuters at the time. "People being scared of you is traumatizing in its own right."
Captives in their teens and early-20s have generally been distributed to Boko Haram fighters, and a high percentage of those who make it out of the forest are pregnant. Even those who escape are faced with major challenges back home, where they are often seen as security threats – a threat that has sometimes proven real, in the form of child suicide bombers recruited by the militants, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last year.
"Let us be clear: these children are victims, not perpetrators," Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF's regional director for West and Central Africa, said in an April statement. "Deceiving children and forcing them to carry out deadly acts has been one of the most horrific aspects of the violence in Nigeria and in neighboring countries."
About two weeks ago, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced that Boko Haram had finally been "crushed" after troops destroyed their forest stronghold. Militant leader Abubakar Shekau, however, released a video last week to contradict the president's claim and call for more killing, more bombing, and more abductions.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.