Tired but smiling, freed Nigerian schoolboys arrive back home

KATSINA, Nigeria (Reuters) -Dozens of schoolboys who were rescued from kidnappers in northwest Nigeria arrived back home on Friday, many of them barefoot and clutching blankets.

Freed Nigerian schoolboys walk after they were rescued by security forces in Katsina, Nigeria, December 18, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Television pictures showed the boys dressed in dusty clothes and light green uniforms, looking weary but otherwise well, getting off buses in the city of Katsina and walking to a government building.

One of them, with flecks of dried mud on his face, told Channels TV the captors had fed them bread and cassava.

“It was cold,” he told the reporter. Asked how he had felt when the bus arrived in Katsina, he said: “I was really happy,” and broke into a smile.

A week earlier, gunmen on motorbikes raided the boys’ boarding school in the nearby town of Kankara and marched hundreds of them into the vast Rugu forest. Authorities said security services rescued them on Thursday, although it was not clear if all of them had been recovered.

The abduction gripped a country already incensed by widespread insecurity, and evoked memories of Islamist militant group Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok.

Six years on, only about half the girls have been found or freed. Others were married off to fighters, while some are assumed to be dead.

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Hours before the rescue of the boys was announced, a video started circulating online purportedly showing Boko Haram militants with some of the boys. Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of the footage or who released it.

On Friday, the boys walked from the bus in single file, flanked by soldiers and armed police officers. A group of their parents waited to be reunited with them in another part of town.

“I couldn’t believe what I heard until neighbours came to inform me that it’s true,” Hafsat Funtua, mother of 16-year-old Hamza Naziru, said earlier in a phone interview.

Describing the moment she heard the news, she said she ran out of her house with joy “not knowing where to go” before returning home to pray.

Another parent, Husseini Ahmed, whose 14-year-old Mohammed Husseini was also among those abducted, expressed happiness and relief that he would soon be reunited with his son.

“We are happy and anxiously expecting their return,” he said.

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Last week’s mass kidnapping piled pressure on the government to deal with militants in the north of the country.

It was particularly embarrassing for President Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from Katsina and has repeatedly said that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated”.

Boko Haram has a history of turning captives into jihadist fighters. If its claims are true, its involvement in northwestern Nigeria marks a geographical expansion in its activities. But it could have purchased the boys from local criminal gangs with which it has been building ties.

Armed gangs that rob and kidnap for ransom, widely referred to as “bandits”, carry out attacks on communities across the northwest, making it hard for locals to farm, travel or tap rich mineral assets in some states such as gold.

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