“Welcome our girls. Welcome our sisters. We're happy to have you back.”
The words from Abba Kyari, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's chief of staff, greeted the 82 Chibok schoolgirls on Sunday, the day after Boko Haram militants released them following lengthy negotiations with government officials.
For three years since their capture, the 276 girls kidnapped from a secondary school in Chibok, a town in Nigeria's Borno state, has inspired global outrage and activism. #BringBackOurGirls was — and still is — an international campaign.
— First Lady- Archived (@FLOTUS44) May 7, 2014
About 200 miles north of Chibok in the battered northeast corner of Nigeria is Damasak, a border town riddled with ruins and inhabited by relatives of lost children. There, people say they feel neglected and abandoned. As worldwide outcry revolved around the Chibok schoolgirls, their loved ones' capture seemed to have escaped the public's attention.
There isn't a social media hashtag or an international campaign advocating for their safe return home.
“We really wonder about it — why those girls but not our children?” Alhaji Aji Bukar, 65, told The Washington Post last month. Boko Haram kidnapped his grandson in 2014.
Many of the children of Damasak were abducted in fall 2014, a few months after the militants hauled off the 276 girls from the Chibok Government Secondary School.
Boko Haram descended on Damasak on Nov. 24, 2014 and honed in on Zanna Mobarti Primary School, locking more than 300 students, ages 7 to 17, inside. The militants then turned the school into a military base where they brought in more captives, according to the Human Rights Watch.
In March 2015, the insurgents fled after security forces from the neighboring countries of Chad and Niger advanced on Damasak, taking with them their captives. They returned the following month before military forces finally forced them out of the town in July 2016.
Residents say more than 500 have been kidnapped. They've submitted the names of the missing to local authorities, but families have yet to receive a response.
The Chibok girls have largely been the focus of government efforts. Nigeria's House of Representatives adopted a motion last month urging the executive branch to expedite negotiations for the girls' release.
“As you know, within the limits of what can be disclosed, there's a lot of negotiations that are going on and we continue to negotiate with those individuals who are holding the Chibok girls,” Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said in an interview with the Guardian shortly before the girls were released. “We have gone quite far with negotiations for, you know, hopefully another batch of the girls.”
— Presidency Nigeria (@NGRPresident) May 7, 2017
On Saturday, Nigerian officials praised Buhari for the release of 82 of the 276 Chibok girls.
“However, the work is not yet done, too many families are still anxious today,” Senate President Abubakar Bukola Saraki said in a statement. “Too many of our daughters have not returned.”
More than 100 of the Chibok girls have so far been returned, including the 20 who were released last year.
The Nigerian government released five Boko Haram commanders in exchange for the 82 girls, according to the Associated Press.
Nigerian officials say Buhari is committed to the release of the rest of the Chibok girls and other Boko Haram captives.
“While international attention and concern has focused on the April 2014 Chibok schoolgirls' abduction, hundreds of other children are also missing in Nigeria's beleaguered northeast,” according to a statement last March from Human Rights Watch. “Authorities should provide regular updates to relatives about efforts to locate and rescue all victims of Boko Haram abductions. Boko Haram leaders should ensure the safe release of children and all other abductees.”