Islamist militant group Boko Haram has kidnapped at least 2,000 Nigerian girls since early last year, Amnesty International says, as the country marks the first anniversary of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls.
Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from their school in Chibok in Borneo state, north-eastern Nigeria, on the evening of April 14 last year.
Fifty-seven managed to escape soon afterwards but the remainder have not been seen since an appearance in a Boko Haram video last May.
Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau claimed they had all converted to Islam and been “married off”.
Despite appeals by relatives and the global ‘Bring Back our Girls’ campaign, the government of outgoing president Goodluck Jonathan failed to rescue them.
President-elect Muhammadu Buhari vowed to rescue the girls after winning the presidential election earlier this month.
Mr Buhari criticised his rival for not doing enough to find the missing girls and combat the Boko Haram threat.
Special church services and vigils are being held across Nigeria to commemorate the one year anniversary of last year’s mass abduction.
Amnesty researcher Daniel Eyre said thousands of girls were being kidnapped and trained to take part in attacks against their own village.
“One girl I spoke to, who’s 19 years old, she told me that she’d been trained how to use a gun, she’d also been trained in the use of explosives, and they’d actually been taken by Boko Haram on an attack against her own village,” Mr Eyre said.
Mr Eyre said the militants were enforcing their own civil code on the region, and were using children as one of their primary weapons.
“We are starting to get testimony from people that have escaped these areas and they’re telling us that Boko Haram is brutally enforcing a set of rules on civilians there,” he said.
“One boy told me how he was forced to participate in the stoning of ten people only because they’d been accused of adultery.”
World must do more: Malala Yousafzai
Nobel peace laureate, Malala Yousafzai, criticised Nigerian and world leaders for failing to help free the 219 missing schoolgirls.
“In my opinion, Nigerian leaders and the international community have not done enough to help you,” she said in a letter to the teenagers on the eve of the first anniversary of their abduction.
“They must do much more to help secure your release. I am among many people pressuring them to make sure you are freed,” she added, calling the girls “my brave sisters”.
Malala, 17, said she wrote the letter as “a message of solidarity and hope”, adding there were now “reasons for hope and optimism”.
A fund set up in her name will ensure the girls will continue their education after their release, she said, urging them not to give up hope.
“I look forward to the day I can hug each one of you, pray with you and celebrate your freedom with your families,” she said.
“Until then, stay strong and never lose hope. You are my heroes.”
Escaped girls ‘not broken by attack’
A group of 21 girls from Chibok, who escaped Boko Haram captivity, now study at the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in the north-eastern city of Yola.
Spread across a vast stretch of land on the outskirts of Yola, the privately funded campus includes an immaculate hotel, with a restaurant overlooking a pool that serves burgers and pizza.
Deborah was one of 57 girls who escaped within hours of the attack.
“It is a beautiful environment,” Deborah said via university staff in an email exchange.
The Chibok girls at AUN were studying a curriculum aimed at preparing them to start a four-year undergraduate program next year.
Deborah said her dream was to work at the United Nations “to help my community in Chibok, Nigeria and the world”.
But among the 21, the prospects felt bittersweet, as international attention returned to the plight of those still being held one year on.
Thoughts of their missing classmates were never far away and in their prayers daily, the students said in an email.
The Chibok girls at AUN said they felt united in a common goal to ensure some good must come from last year’s tragedy.
“It has been a horrible journey yet we believe that coming to AUN is for a purpose, which is to be an instrument of positive change in our hometown,” said Sarah, one of the girls who escaped.
“We have not been broken by the attack. We see ourselves as the people who have been chosen to make positive future changes not just in Chibok, but in our country and the world.”
Conflict having ‘devastating impact’ on children, says UNICEF
A new report by UNICEF found around 800,000 children were forced to flee their homes as a result of the conflict in northeast Nigeria between Boko Haram, military forces and civilian self-defence groups.
Released one year after the abduction of the Chibok school girls, the Missing Childhoods report revealed the number of children running for their lives within Nigeria, or crossing over the border to Chad, Niger and Cameroon, more than doubled in less than a year.
“The abduction of more than 200 girls in Chibok is only one of endless tragedies being replicated on an epic scale across Nigeria and the region,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF regional director for West and Central Africa.
“Scores of girls and boys have gone missing in Nigeria — abducted, recruited by armed groups, attacked, used as weapons, or forced to flee violence.
“They have the right to get their childhoods back.”
The report also outlined how children were being used within the ranks of Boko Haram as combatants, cooks, porters and look-outs.
It also said young women and girls were being subjected to forced marriage, forced labour and rape.