Yana Galang was visiting Dapchi in northeast Nigeria to offer condolences to parents whose daughters were kidnapped by Boko Haram when people started to shout with excitement.
Her own daughter, Rifkatu, is still missing nearly four years after she and over 200 of her classmates were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants from their school in Chibok about 275 km (170 miles) away.
Then four weeks ago, Boko Haram kidnapped 110 girls from a school in Dapchi in the biggest mass abduction since the Chibok capture which prompted international outrage and the global campaign #bringbackourgirls.
Galang, a mother of eight, said she had planned to tell the parents to be patient for their girls’ return as she had been.
“When we asked why people were running, they told us that they were expecting their girls, that Boko Haram was bringing them home,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
“Our visit became something else,” added Galang, one of 30 Chibok parents who made the 11-hour trip to Dapchi the previous day to meet with the parents of the missing girls.
The Nigerian government confirmed that 101 of the girls seized in Dapchi on Feb. 19 had been freed. Nigeria denied a ransom was paid for their release.
Yakubu Nkeki, chairman of the Chibok parents’ association whose niece was abducted at Chibok, described the scene of jubilation after the girls were reunited with their families.
“Right in front of us, the militants brought the girls and dropped them and then left,” he said.
He said some of the girls, aged between 11 and 19, looked “panicked” initially and could barely respond to questions.
No official details were given about those who did not return, but Galang said she spoke with a number of the freed girls who told her that five of their schoolmates had died and one was held back because she refused to convert to Islam.
“They said that three girls fell (out of the trucks) and into the river on their way to (the) Sambisa (forest hideout of Boko Haram). Two others died in the forest,” said Galang.
She described how she wept watching the parents being reunited with their daughters as she still had no word about the fate of her own daughter.
“I cried seriously,” she said.
Campaigners welcomed the release of the Dapchi girls while calling on the government to do more to ensure the release of the Chibok girls whose abduction was the biggest publicity coup of Boko Haram’s nine-year insurgency.
The Islamist group has killed at least 20,000 people, uprooted more than 2.7 million and sparked one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world, according to aid agencies.
“This is incredible news, and fortuitous at a time when the Chibok parents are visiting the Dapchi parents,” said Aisha Muhammed-Oyebode, head of the Murtala Muhammed Foundation which sponsored the Chibok parents’ trip to Dapchi.
“However, it puts on us an even greater responsibility to ensure that all of the remaining Chibok girls are returned. Nearly four years in captivity is an outrage.” (Thomson Reuters Foundation)