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One Year after Boko Haram Abducts over 200 Schoolgirls, Nigerian President Says It's Unlikely They Will Be Found

( [email protected] ) Apr 14, 2015 04:39 PM EDT
On the first anniversary of the kidnapping of hundreds of girls by Boko Haram from a school in northeast Nigeria, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari said he is uncertain whether the 219 who are still missing will ever be found.
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai — shot in 2012 by Taliban militants opposed to the education of girls — wrote an open letter to the missing schoolgirls, writing, ''On this first anniversary of your captivity, I write to you a message of solidarity, love and hope.'' AP Photo

On the first anniversary of the kidnapping of hundreds of girls by Boko Haram from a school in northeast Nigeria, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari said he is uncertain whether the 219 who are still missing will ever be found.

"We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued. Their whereabouts remain unknown," Buhari said on Tuesday. "As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them."

The President, who will take office May 29, added, "What I can pledge, with absolute certainty, is that starting on the first day of my administration Boko Haram will know the strength of our collective will and commitment to rid this nation of terror, and bring back peace and normalcy to all the affected areas." 

One year ago, the schoolgirls were kidnapped from the town of Chibok by the extremist group, which has terrorized the northeastern regions of Nigeria for six years in an attempt to establish an Islamic caliphate.

Since then, hope that they will be found has steadily dwindled, despite repeated promises from former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan.

"These were girls who went to get an education, so safety should have been a priority," said the #BringBackOurGirls campaign's head, Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former government minister and the vice president of World Bank's Africa region. "The fact that our government shilly-shallied for so many days is a source of great pain for this movement and for many other Nigerians. We believe there was poor management of the rescue operation."

Although several dozen girls managed to escape as the kidnappers were taking the hostages to the Sambisa Forest in northeast Nigeria, 219 remain missing. While the exact nature of their fate is unknown, Boko Haram's leader, Abubakar Shekau, has claimed that schoolgirls, many of them raised as Christians, have been converted to Islam and "married off" to Boko Haram fighters or sold for as little as $12.

One of Boko Haram's former captives, Liatu Andrawus, a 23-year-old mother of two children, told The Globe and Mail that she met the hundreds of captured schoolgirls while she was being held in captivity in the northeastern Nigerian town of Gwoza.

She recalled how she and the girls would gather to pray and comfort each other, and discuss how to flee the militant group.

"We always talked about how we could escape. Sometimes we sat down and prayed together and hugged and cried. They were remembering their good moments with their parents and loved ones," Andrawus said.

She also revealed that some of the schoolgirls she met were forcibly married to Boko Haram fighters, while others were kept hostage in a compound.

Last year, the kidnappings sparked international outrage and the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. However, activists are marking the anniversary with a change in their slogan from "Bring Back Our Girls - Now and Alive" to "Never to be Forgotten."

On Tuesday morning, a march and vigil were held to honor the girls in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, with 219 girls taking part to represent those missing. Then, on Tuesday night, the Empire State Building in New York City will be lit up over the hours the girls were kidnapped. The building's purple and red colors will symbolize its call for an end to violence against women and girls.

At least 2,000 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since the start of 2014, and many have been forced into sexual slavery and trained to fight, Amnesty International has revealed.

Hundreds of boys and young men also have been kidnapped and forced to fight with the extremists, or slaughtered for refusing to do so, it said. Boko Haram, whose attacks on schools have forced thousands out of education, translates as "Western education is forbidden."