KATSINA, Nigeria – More than 300 Nigerian boys were preparing to reunite with their parents on Friday, a week after militants stormed their homes in one of the largest kidnappings of school children in history.
Katsina State Governor Aminu Bello Masari said all 344 abducted boys had been released after six days in captivity, a statement that several of those rescued confirmed.
It was not immediately clear how those statements aligned with previous testimonies of some of their classmates who managed to escape and said that a number of heads made by their captors as they walked through a dense forest revealed over 500 hostages.
One of the rescued boys, Abdurauf Isa, still dressed in the purple-and-white checkered school uniform of the Kankara High School of Science, said he was relieved of their ordeal. “We suffered at the hands of our captors, but they fed us,” the 16-year-old said on Friday. “I ate raw local potatoes and drank water from the creek.”
The Boko Haram jihadist group, which stands for “Western education is forbidden,” claimed responsibility for the abduction, saying on Tuesday it had seized students to punish them for “non-Islamic practices.” In a beaded video released Thursday, hours before the boys were released, the hostages said some of their colleagues had died in captivity. Mr Masari, the governor, said on Friday that all the captured boys were alive.
Abdurauf said he was looking forward to returning to school. “My dream is to be a scientist in the future,” he said. “I will continue with my education.”
Nigerian officials, including President Muhammadu Buhari, were careful on Friday not to name the group behind the boys’ abduction or to provide details on how they were released. In an interview with the state broadcaster NTA, Mr Buhari thanked the army, which he said surrounded the boys’ abductors without revealing their identities or explaining what happened afterwards. His government has repeatedly said that his army has technically defeated Boko Haram and its affiliates, although the group has outnumbered dozens of military bases and launched brutal attacks on civilians in the past year.
If Boko Haram were indeed responsible, analysts said, the abduction of the boys would mark a dangerous expansion under his leadership, Abubakar Shekau, from his northeastern Nigerian city in northwestern Katsina state, potentially forming alliances with local criminal networks . Some analysts have questioned claims by Nigerian officials that they did not pay a ransom to free the boys taken from the Kankara school.
The relatively quick release of the boys was a much-needed victory for Mr Buhari’s government, for which the abduction was an embarrassing reminder of the 2014 abduction of 276 schoolchildren in Chibok. This attack launched the global #BringBackOurGirls campaign, drawing the world’s attention to the rise of Boko Haram militants.
Three years later, 103 of the girls were released for a ransom that, according to those involved, included the exchange of five imprisoned militants and 3 million euros, the equivalent of about $ 3.7 million. The government has denied paying a ransom for the Chibok girls.
After medical checks and changing into clean clothes, the boys waited for hours on Friday afternoon in a state banquet hall before meeting with Mr. Buhari and Governor Katsina.
“Don’t let your abduction experience discourage you from continuing your education,” the boys’ president told them. “Please leave the experience behind and move on.”
Outside, dozens of parents, who had traveled about 130 kilometers from Kankara to the state capital Katsina, were eager to welcome their children. “It simply came to our notice then [my son’s] hand before he and other released children go for medical check-up, “said Hajia Mai Jida, whose 17-year-old son Buhari was among those released on Thursday.
But, like other parents, Ms. Jida said she did not intend to send her son back to school. “The school is not secured and is left alone in the bush,” she said. “I don’t want him kidnapped again.”
Write to Gabriele Steinhauser to [email protected]
Corrections and amplifications
Muhammadu Buhari is the President of Nigeria. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that his last name was Buhair in a single reference.
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