Hundreds of hostages rescued from Boko Haram in Nigeria

People look at a poster in Maiduguri on October 28, 2015 displaying one hundred Boko Haram suspects declared wanted by the Nigerian army.
People look at a poster in Maiduguri on October 28, 2015 displaying one hundred Boko Haram suspects declared wanted by the Nigerian army. | AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of hostages, primarily women and children, have been freed by the Nigerian army from the grip of Boko Haram militants who held them captive in northeastern Nigeria for months or even years, according to a report. The rescue operation marks a significant victory in the country’s ongoing fight against the Islamic extremist group.

The Nigerian military, in a coordinated effort, rescued 350 captives from the Sambisa Forest, a notorious stronghold for Boko Haram, The Associated Press reported.

The group, which has waged an insurgency since 2009, has used this forest as a base for launching attacks. Maj. Gen. Ken Chigbu, a senior army officer, presented the freed hostages to authorities in Borno state this week.

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Among the rescued were 209 children, 135 women and six men, all of whom appeared exhausted and wore worn-out clothes, the newswire said, adding that many of the young girls had infants, likely born from forced marriages during their captivity.

“I always wanted to escape but couldn’t because of the children. If they caught you trying to escape, they would torture you and imprison you indefinitely,” Hajara Umara, one of the rescued hostages, was quoted as saying.

Some extremists were killed and their makeshift houses were destroyed during the operation. The Nigerian army said it was a days-long military operation in the area that was once a bustling forest reserve that stretches along the border with Cameroon and Niger. Now, it serves as an enclave from where Boko Haram and its breakaway factions carry out attacks, targeting both people and security forces in neighboring countries.

The freed hostages have been transported to the Borno state government house where authorities will look after them until they can return to their homes.

Boko Haram, Nigeria’s homegrown jihadi rebels, seeks to establish Islamic Shariah law in the country.

According to U.N. agencies in Nigeria, the extremist violence has resulted in the deaths of at least 35,000 people and the displacement of 2.1 million people.

Since the 2014 kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Boko Haram has abducted at least 1,400 students from Nigerian schools, primarily in the country’s conflict-battered northwestern and central regions, noted the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern.

The Christian community in Nigeria has also been significantly affected by Boko Haram’s violence.

A recent report by Aid to the Church in Need drew attention to the captivity of Leah Sharibu, a captive who turned 21 on May 14, six years after being abducted from her school in Nigeria for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. It’s not yet known if she was one of the 350 freed captives.

On her birthday, a pastor close to Sharibu’s family called on the Nigerian government and the international community to end their “unfathomable” and “strange silence” and help secure her release.

“Leah ought to have been released by now but here we are,” Gideon Para-Mallam, president of Gideon and Funmi Para-Mallam Peace Foundation, was quoted as saying.

Sharibu was kidnapped along with 110 other schoolgirls from the Dapchi Girls Secondary School in Yobe State on Feb. 19, 2018. While all the other girls were released through negotiations with the Islamic terrorist group, Sharibu was not, as she reportedly chose to remain faithful to her Christian belief despite being forced to convert to Islam.

“Nigerians need to unite across faiths to raise their voices in advocacy to free Leah and others in captivity,” the Rev. Para-Mallam said. “We are in this together. Persecution to one is persecution to all.”

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