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Twenty-one of the over 200 missing Chibok schoolgirls freed after being held by Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists for more than two years on Sunday spoke of their ordeal as they were reunited with their families.
During a Christian ceremony held for them in the capital Abuja, a schoolgirl named Gloria Dame said they had survived for 40 days without food and narrowly escaped death at least once.
“I was… (in) the woods when the plane dropped a bomb near me but I wasn’t hurt,” Dame told the congregation.
“We had no food for one month and 10 days but we did not die. We thank God,” she said, speaking in the local Hausa language.
The ceremony was organised by Nigeria’s security services which negotiated their release. Most of the kidnapped students were Christian but had been forcibly converted to Islam during captivity.
The Chibok girls were abducted in April 2014, drawing global attention to the Boko Haram insurgency engulfing the area when US First Lady Michelle Obama joined the #BringBackOurGirls online movement.
Of the 276 girls initially seized, scores escaped in the hours after the kidnapping, while another 19-year-old was found with her four-month-old baby earlier this year.
The ceremony was interrupted when the girls’ relatives arrived and were reunited with them. Tears flowed as they hugged their children.
“We can all see the joy and emotions of the parents,” Information Minister Lai Mohamed said.
He said talks with the Islamists would continue “until all the girls have been released”.
“Very soon, another batch, bigger than this would be released,” Mohammed said.
Garba Shehu, a spokesman for the Nigerian presidency, told AFP that “the Mamman Nur faction of the Boko Haram has indicated its willingness to negotiate the release of more Chibok girls in their custody.
“The group claims that it has 83 more girls to release on negotiation,” he said, without elaborating.
Despite winning back swathes of territory from the jihadists, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has faced intense criticism for failing to recover the young captives, who became the defining symbol of Boko Haram’s brutal campaign to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in the country.
The insurgency has claimed more than 20,000 lives and displaced 2.6 million people since Boko Haram took up arms against the Nigerian government in 2009.