As news spread last week about the discovery of one of the missing “Chibok” schoolgirls, the Nigerian army announced, to little fanfare, the rescue of nearly 100 other women and children from the clutches of Boko Haram.
The rescue may not have made headlines at all if it hadn’t turned up Serah Luka, a captive initially believed to be yet another one of the “Chibok” teens still missing after a high-profile abduction in the spring of 2014.
The debate over whether Luka was or was not one of the 218 missing schoolgirls instantly overshadowed the rescue itself, drawing criticism on social media and from the army.
“We shouldn’t focus on whether she is one of the Chibok girls or not,” Brig. General Abubakar Rabe said. “The important thing is that we are pursuing Boko Haram and rescuing human beings on a daily basis. We should be allowed to concentrate on rescuing other people in our operations.”
The intense focus on the Chibok girls, driven by powerful advocacy campaigns, belies the scale of Boko Haram’s kidnapping operations and the progress the military is making in rescuing hundreds of women and children.
The Nigerian army, which began a major offensive to reclaim territory from Boko Haram last year, claims to have rescued more than 1,000 hostages since the beginning of this year alone.
The exact number of captives abducted over the group’s seven-year insurgency is not even known. While rights groups have put the number around 2,000, activists characterize the figure as a definite underestimation and say that the true scale of the group’s hostage activities is only coming to light as Nigerian forces continue to push into land that had previously been considered off limits.
“What’s very important to remember is that Boko Haram held huge territory—they were in control of 19 out of 65 local government areas across the three states of emergency. So while usually you would have a situation where if children, if wives or family members were abducted, they’d be able to report it, for a long period of time those areas were inaccessible, so those reports were not able to be made,” said Rachel Harvey, UNICEF’s chief child protection officer in Nigeria.
“What we’re seeing is much larger numbers [of people] that have been rescued and encountered by the Nigerian armed forces and I think we should expect to see numbers in the thousands [of people] who were not only abducted, but held under Boko Haram control and also subjected to sexual violence.”
The increasing number of returnees are painting a fuller picture of the atrocities carried out by the jihadist militants and the diversity of hostages under their control.
Besides forcing abductees into marriage and subjecting them to sexual violence, as was widely reported in the wake of the Chibok abductions, the militants have also forced them to carry out suicide bombings on their behalf. According to Harvey, more than 20 girls under the age of 18 did so last year, further stigmatizing returnees whose communities often fear that they were radicalized in captivity.
While reports on Boko Haram that emerged in the wake of the Chibok kidnapping emphasized its attacks on Christians and symbols of Western education, growing evidence shows that they are more indiscriminate in their choice of targets.
“Both Muslims girls and women, Christian girls and women were targeted. People were targeted in Boko Haram strongholds, people were targeted in areas where there were skirmishes…boys were also abducted and they were used by Boko Haram both in support roles and to fight as well,” Harvey said. “I don’t think anyone was safe from the abductions.”
Boko Haram has become increasingly brutal over the course of its seven-year insurgency. While the militants once spared civilians from attacks, it now targets them routinely. Reports of forced marriages didn’t even emerge until a couple years before the Chibok kidnapping in 2014, which was and remains the largest recorded single kidnapping incident of women and children in the country’s history.
The sheer scale of the abduction was the motivation behind the now-famous “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign, which brought the Chibok girls global attention.
“Before the Chibok girls’ abduction there had been several others…but it was the first time in the history of Nigeria where a very large number of teenage girls, who were writing their exams, were taken by a terrorist group—276 were abducted in the month of April, 2014,” said Jeff Okoroafor, a spokesman for the campaign. “[Nothing like this had ever] happened before and we couldn’t just close our eyes.”
The group’s singular focus on the Chibok girls has drawn criticism as other kidnappings and rescues have taken place. But Okoroafor says that the only reason rescue operations are continuing at such a steady pace is because of the attention and pressure created by Chibok-inspired campaigns.
“No one ever knew about these abducted persons before we started crying out about the Chibok girls’ abduction. These were people the government never knew had been taken,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we don’t speak for the other abducted persons, it only means that we are holding onto [the Chibok girls] as a symbol.”