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Relief, anger for parents of missing Nigerian girls

First glimpse of hostage video too much for many

Calls worldwide for the Nigerian girls’ release included a march Tuesday on the Esplanade du Trocadero in Paris.

LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP/Getty Images

Calls worldwide for the Nigerian girls’ release included a march Tuesday on the Esplanade du Trocadero in Paris.

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — When the girls appeared on the screen, parents in the small room at the government compound here dissolved into tears.

But after several of them finally saw their daughters’ faces again in the video, they said their relief quickly gave rise to anger: the girls were alive, but they were prisoners.

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“Her face was frowning and unhappy,” said Bashir Wattai, a tall, solidly built farmer who said he had just seen his 17-year-old daughter Mairama in the video. “She looked sad. I burst into crying and weeping.

“The other people in the room, they were all weeping and crying,” Wattai said. “It was just tears.”

Four weeks of anguish have passed since the night when more than 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped by the radical Islamist group Boko Haram from a state school in Chibok, an isolated village 80 miles from this state capital in northeastern Nigeria. But on Tuesday, at the well-guarded government compound in the heartland of the Boko Haram insurgency, an unwelcome window into their children’s forbidding new world was opened to the grieving parents.

“I saw her. Yes, I saw her,” said Habiba Yaga, the mother of Hawa Maina, 18. “I did not know she was alive. But when is she coming back home?”

To her mother, Hawa looked alien in the robes given to her by the Islamists. “They’ve changed her dress. She looked, uglier than at home,” Yaga said, hesitating.

Wattai concurred. The new dress was disturbing. “Her normal appearance was changed for me,” he said.

The militants released their video to news organizations on Monday, providing the first glimpse of the girls in what has become a global search effort, spurred by a grass-roots outcry on two sides of the Atlantic. The girls, some 276 of whom remain missing, are bargaining chips for Boko Haram, which is demanding that the Nigerian government release its imprisoned members in exchange for the kidnapped students.

But while much of the world saw the girls sitting passively and compliant in the video, many of their families had to wait. One parent explained that there was no electricity in their village to enable them to watch, a poignant reminder of how poor many victims in the conflict here are.

By the end of Tuesday, 77 faces in the solemn crowd of girls, newly clad from head to toe in somber black-and-gray robes, had been recognized, the state governor’s office said in a statement. The robes, revealing only the schoolgirls’ faces, rendered some of them difficult to identify, some parents said.

The government had arranged a first showing of the video Monday in Chibok to identify the girls, but it had to be halted abruptly when the parents were overcome with grief, demanding the government’s identification process be moved here to Maiduguri.

“The families became upset and they started crying ‘This is my child,’” a senior state official said Tuesday evening. “They started shouting. They had to stop the filming.”

Then on Tuesday, the state government organized a group of about 15 parents, relatives, and girls who had escaped the Islamists to make the arduous journey to the state capital here to watch the video. They were guarded by rifle-bearing militia members from the village because the road is still preyed on by Boko Haram.

The group, along with teachers, officials, and security operatives, packed into the room at the government complex and locked the door. When the parents emerged, their universe of anxiety had shifted. Some appeared dazed and perturbed as they slumped in plastic chairs outside the state-run hotel here.

“She’s not feeling OK,” said Lawan Zanah, who had just seen his daughter Ayesha, 18, in the video. “The way she is sitting. She doesn’t even know where she is. She seemed sad. Sad.”

The girls were at the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School to take their final exams, and many were staying overnight there. Armed and uniformed men rounded them up, loaded them into trucks, and drove off with them. Although about 50 escaped, none of the remaining girls has been found.

Boko Haram has conducted large-scale attacks on government and civilian targets, including schools, and the Nigerian government has waged a bloody counterattack, detaining and killing hundreds of suspects and civilians.

But statements from the Nigerian government suggested officials might be open to negotiations, while senior US military and civilian officials arrived in the national capital, Abuja, for talks with the government.

General David M. Rodriguez, commanding general of the US military’s Africa Command, visited Nigeria on Monday and Tuesday to discuss assistance for the search, including surveillance aircraft and satellite imagery, as well as broader security cooperation with Nigerian officials, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday.

The international effort, ramping up as the plight of the girls captured the global imagination, appeared to be of some comfort to the parents.

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