A young woman carrying a baby emerged Wednesday from the Nigerian bush with a story that began over two years ago: She was among the more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by Islamist militiamen and the first to be found since shortly after the hostage-taking.
The fast-moving events that followed — the announcement of her recovery, her reunion with her mother — were celebrated by activists and others who had helped rally support as high as the White House for the students held by the militant group Boko Haram.
The end of the woman’s ordeal was likely to raise hopes that others held by Boko Haram could find freedom. But the militants remain a significant force despite widening military campaigns — backed by U.S. drone surveillance — in Nigeria and surrounding countries including Cameroon and Chad.
There also were questions and grim accounts to assess.
Amina Ali Nkeki, the 19-year-old former captive, said that some of her classmates had died in captivity, a family doctor, Idriss Danladi, told the Associated Press.
And it was not immediately clear whether she was freed or managed to slip away with the infant, whose own history could bring further investigations of possible sexual abuse and forced pregnancies.
A statement from Col. Sani Kukasheka Usman, Nigeria’s army spokesman, confirmed only that Nkeki was from the boarding school besieged by Boko Haram in April 2014 in the northern Nigerian town of Chibok, not far from the forest area where she was discovered.
She was “among the rescued persons by our troops,” said the statement, giving no further details.
A total of 276 girls — mostly ages 16 to 18 — were taken captive as they prepared for an exam. At least 219 remained missing after the others managed to escape soon after the abduction by the militant group, which seeks to impose strict Islamic law.
Earlier, one of the girl’s uncles said Nkeki was found by Nigerian soldiers. The uncle, Yakubu Nkeki, said his niece was pregnant and suffering from “trauma,” but he did not elaborate, the AP reported.
In April, a video surfaced purporting to show 15 of the kidnapped girls. One of them remarked, “We are all well,” and she encouraged the Nigerian government to meet Boko Haram’s demands, which were not stated.
Since the abduction, activists and others have stirred fears that the girls could face abuse or forced marriages with fighters from Boko Haram, which rejects Western influence in education and other areas. Boko Haram leaders have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, but the level of direct coordination is unclear.
A report in April by the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF accused Boko Haram of sharply increasing the use of child suicide bombers — with girls accounting for more than three-quarters of them — in Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad. Some of the girls are thought to have been kidnapped by the extremists, but no direct ties have been made with the captives from Chibok.
“Children in this situation typically require medical assistance and psycho-social support,” said a statement from Helene Sandbu Reng, spokeswoman of the U.N. Children’s Fund.
“Our experience with children and women who were kidnapped by Boko Haram and freed by the military or escaped shows that they often face mistrust, stigma and rejection when they return to their communities,” she added.
Nkeki was taken to a military camp along with the baby and her mother. The teenager’s father died while she was held captive.
Nigerian forces have been deployed in the Sambisa Forest region carrying out in missions against Boko Haram, which was waged a nearly seven-year insurgency that has killed more than 20,000 people.
Nigerian officials have alluded in the past to possible talks. But there have been few clear details about potential contacts to free the girls. Around the world, activists have united on social media behind the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
Although the Nigerian military has dislodged Boko Haram militants from cities and towns, a search-and-rescue operation in the forest is thought to be far more difficult.
In October, the Pentagon announced it was sending up to 300 U.S. troops to Cameroon to establish a drone base to help track Boko Haram fighters.
The U.S. military also flies unarmed drones from Niger to monitor other Islamist factions in the region including Mali, where a group linked to al-Qaeda has waged sporadic attacks on military outposts and Western targets such as international hotels.