KATSINA, Nigeria (Reuters) - Parents sobbed, mobbed their children in hugs and even kissed the ground in gratitude on Friday as they reunited with scores of schoolboys who had been kidnapped a week earlier in northwest Nigeria.
Hundreds of adults jostled to find their offspring among the 344 dusty and dazed looking children who had arrived by bus in Katsina state on Friday morning. Those who succeeded cheered and grabbed their children, but scores more were still waiting by early evening.
“I feel like God has granted me paradise because I am so happy,” said an ebullient Hamza Kankara after she found her son, Lawal, in the crowd.
Another man knelt and kissed the ground, thanking God for the return of his young son, before clutching the boy and sobbing.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had come under mounting pressure to free the boys and deal with insecurity in the north.
One boy, who did not give his name, said their captors had told him to describe them as members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, although he suspected they were armed bandits.
“They beat us morning, every night. We suffered a lot. They only gave us food once a day and water twice a day,” he told Nigeria’s Arise television.
Gunmen on motorbikes raided the boys’ boarding school in the town of Kankara in Katsina state a week ago and marched hundreds of them into a vast forest that spans four states.
Authorities said security services rescued them on Thursday. The army said it had acted on “credible intelligence” and freed all 344 kidnapped boys.
Many details surrounding the incident remain unclear, including who was responsible, why they kidnapped the boys, whether ransom was paid and how the release was secured.
The abduction gripped a country already incensed by widespread insecurity, and evoked memories of Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok.
The boys’ abduction was particularly embarrassing for Buhari, who comes from Katsina state and has repeatedly said that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated”.
Any Boko Haram involvement in this kidnapping would mark a geographical expansion in the militant group’s activities from its base in the northeast.
TEARS OF JOY, PRAYERS OF THANKS
Hours before the rescue of the boys was announced on Thursday, 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.
The rescued boy interviewed by Arise TV was one of those who had appeared in the online video.
“They said I should say they are Boko Haram and gangs of Abu Shekau,” he said, referring to a name used by a Boko Haram leader. “Sincerely speaking, they are not Boko Haram ... They are just small and tiny, tiny boys with big guns.”
Another of the freed boys told Reuters that the kidnappers had initially taken them to a hiding place.
“But when they saw a jet fighter, they changed the location and hid us in a different place. They gave us food, but it was very little,” he said.
Earlier on Friday the boys, flanked by soldiers and armed police officers, were taken to meet the governor. They then underwent medical checks before meeting with Buhari.
Anxious parents had waited hours to be reunited.
Hajiya Bilikisu, in a cream-coloured veil, said she had started to lose hope that she would ever see her son, Abdullahi Abdulrazak, again.
“I was just crying, crying with joy, when I saw them, my son” in pictures after the release, she told Reuters.
“They have to recover psychologically,” she said. “They went through trauma. We have to try to counsel them, so they can now become normal persons.”
Reporting by Ismail Abba in Katsina; Additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Garba Muhammad in Kaduna, Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja, and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram, Libby George and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Alexandra Zavis, Mike Collett-White and Daniel Wallis
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