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Nigerian schoolgirls face uncertainty upon release

23 October 2014, 13:53

Kano - The Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram Islamists will face uncertainty if the extremists make good on an apparent pledge to free the teenagers they seized six months ago.

The government in Abuja claimed last Friday that it had secured a ceasefire deal and agreement on the hostages, raising hopes that the 219 teenagers held since April 14 would soon be coming home.

But community leaders and residents in their remote hometown of Chibok in Borno state say both the girls and their families will face challenges that could dampen any initial joy at their release.

The actual state of their town and the surrounding villages is an immediate issue, with Boko Haram having laid waste to communities in their bloody quest for a hardline Islamic state.

In particular, there is little left of the Government Girls Secondary School, which the militants stormed as the girls slept in dormitories on the eve of sitting national exams.

"Eighty percent of the school was destroyed," said vice-principal Bulamodu Lawan. "Out of 29 classroom blocks, only four remain."

The militants, who are opposed to so-called "Western education", razed the administrative, IT and laboratory blocks, as well as the library and central food store.

Student hostels, staff quarters, the school kitchen and dining hall were also burnt to the ground, Lawan told AFP.

The federal government has promised to fund rebuilding work, as has Britain's former prime minister Gordon Brown, now the UN's global education envoy, who is behind a Safe Schools Initiative.

But so far, there has been little progress, meaning the girls are likely to have to continue their education elsewhere.

Fifty-seven girls who managed to escape the initial abduction are already at schools in other parts of the country.

The devastation to bricks and mortar extends to surrounding villages in the Chibok area, which have not escaped Boko Haram's murderous rampage, forcing thousands to flee.

"We are still living in our houses because they are intact," said one parent, Usman Peter, who lives in Chibok town. "But most of the surrounding villages have been burnt and the areas deserted.

"So, parents who live in those areas have already left. I don't think they will come back even after the girls are released."

Having a place to resume their studies and live is one thing but the girls and their families may face physical and psychological difficulties as well as having to confront traditional attitudes.

Read also: Blast rocks bus station in north Nigeria

"The condition our girls will come in is our major concern," said Enoch Mark, a Christian pastor whose daughter and niece are among the captives.

"We keep wondering if our girls will come back pregnant or indoctrinated by Boko Haram.

"The kind of people they have related with who could have an impact on their psyche is a source of worry to us. This can have an impact on their reintegration into the community."

Evidence of sex outside marriage and pregnancy would be a major obstacle, with families having to fight hard to overcome deeply ingrained conservatism.

Boko Haram has maintained that the girls had not been ill-treated or sexually abused but human rights groups have documented both among former hostages.

"In whatever situation they come back to us, we can't disown them," said Mark, although he accepted that some families "may object" to a pregnancy or their forced conversion to Islam.

The six-month ordeal has been too much to bear for some families and some have died from stress and high blood pressure, said residents.

Some girls will have to face that bereavement while others could place an extra burden on families -- most of them farmers -- who have been unable to plant crops this year because of the violence.

Kidnapping young women and girls -- as well as forcibly conscripting young men and boys to fight for Boko Haram -- was a well-established tactic by the militants even before Chibok.

Some estimates put the number of women held by the group in the high hundreds.

Even the day after the government announced an end to hostilities, Boko Haram were suspected of kidnapping some 40 women in neighbouring Adamawa state.

"Keeping the girls safe from further abduction is another worry because attacks are still being carried out," said Mark.

"Continued violence and attacks can still have a psychological effect on the girls.

"Staying in an atmosphere of fear after going through so much trauma can have an adverse effect on their mental state."

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