ABUJA, Nigeria (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It was hearing about her sore eyes that convinced Lawal Zannah his daughter Aisha was still alive, the first sliver of good news to emerge after months of nervy silence enveloped Nigeria’s kidnapped Chibok girls.
Word of 21-year-old Aisha’s persistent eye problem came via a newly released captive, Jumai, who had shared a militant encampment with her in northeastern Nigeria.
Aisha was among the more than 200 girls kidnapped from their school by Boko Haram militants in April 2014. Since then, about half of the girls have been found or freed, dozens have been paraded in propaganda videos and an unknown number have died.
Reports of forced marriages and indoctrination have kept rumors alive about the captors and their brutal lifestyle.
But the welfare of Zannah’s daughter, along with the other captives taken from their school in Chibok, had remained uncertain as the kidnapping ordeal dragged past its fourth year.
“(Jumai) told me that she was in the same camp as my daughter and five other Chibok girls,” Zannah told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the ex-captive’s Chibok home.
“She said my daughter has been suffering from eye problems and I knew it was true because the eye trouble started before she was kidnapped.”
It was the first confirmation his daughter was alive that he had received since May, when more than 80 of Aisha’s classmates were freed following negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram.
Zannah was not the only local hoping for an update.
Once word got out that a Chibok woman had escaped from the Sambisa Forest hideout of the jihadist group, parents rushed to her home in the hope of any news, be it good or bad.
Zannah said he had jumped into his car and driven at speed. When Jumai revealed the telling eye detail, he was elated.
To be doubly sure, he had driven home for a photo of his daughter.
Seeing the image from happier days, 35-year-old Jumai once again confirmed that Aisha was alive and living in her camp, mother to a baby boy and remarried to a militant after her first husband was killed in battle.
Zannah burst into tears of relief.
Yana Galang, another parent who had rushed to see Jumai, shed tears for a different reason.
Jumai revealed that she had no news of Galang’s daughter, Rifkatu, and had never seen nor heard of her in the past two years of sharing a camp with six of the lost Chibok girls.
“My body just shut down. We spent more than an hour interviewing the woman,” said Rifkatu’s mother Galang. “She said she can’t talk about my daughter because she didn’t see her.”
Instead she clung to the only hope that was offered by Jumai, who said 38 girls were held in one location and another 25 Chibok girls corralled in a separate camp.
“I never saw them (the second batch) but that is what I heard,” Jumai told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.
“In the Sambisa (camp), we don’t have free movement. Our husbands don’t allow us move around freely.”
The only woman she knew who could move about freely was Dorcas Yakubu, she said, one of the Chibok girls to feature in a Boko Haram propaganda video declaring that she was unwilling to return to her parents whom she described as infidels.
“She takes a gun and goes out on operations with the men. She attends committee meetings with them,” Jumai said.
Not part of the dramatic school kidnapping that captured world headlines, Jumai said she grew close to the six Chibok girls after they heard her speaking to her children in their local language, Kibaku.
She was captured from Askira, a town near to Chibok, by Boko Haram in April 2014, around the same time as the infamous abduction of the girls from their school dormitory which sparked a global ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign.
Her husband was killed while she was taken into the forest with her six children. Her oldest son was forced to join Boko Haram, she was forcefully married to a militant with whom she had a two-year-old, and was pregnant when the man was killed by the Nigerian military a few months ago.
Her son who was now part of Boko Haram facilitated his mother’s escape, leading her and his younger siblings through the forest in the middle of the night before returning to rejoin the militant group.
After weeks of trekking through dense bushes, Jumai said she had arrived at her brother’s house in Chibok with her children, unleashing jubilation from family members who had given up hope.
“There was a lot of suffering in the forest,” she said. “The military has blocked everywhere so our husbands don’t have free movement to go out and find food for us. We were eating leaves and shrubs.”
After listening to Jumai, the parents of the six Chibok girls she had identified as safe met to decide on next steps. In the end, they knew everything hinged on the government.
“Now that we have confirmed that our daughters are alive, we are begging them to try and rescue them,” Zannah said.