Some of the 276 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram have been killed in Nigerian air force bombings, the group said in a video released Sunday.
The video appeared to be the first proof in months that dozens of the girls are still alive, more than two years after they were captured from the town of Chibok.
Their faces bleak, the group of several dozen girls could be seen wearing long Islamic gowns, guarded by a masked man in camouflage. Some fought back tears. Many held babies, likely the product of rape after the girls were forcibly married to fighters. About 40 of the girls have been married off, the masked man said.
“No one cares for us,” one girl, identified as Maida Yakubu, said in the video.
“We are suffering here. The aircraft has come to bombard us and killed many of us. Some are wounded,” Yakubu said, according to an Associated Press translation. “Every day we are in pains and suffering. So are our babies. Some of our husbands that we married also are injured, some dead.”
“Please go and beg the government of Nigeria to release the members of our abductors so that they too can free us to let us come home,” she said. “We are really suffering, there is no food to eat, no good water to drink here.”
The masked fighter, who seemed to represent the Boko Haram faction led by Abubakar Shekau, demanded the release of prisoners in return for releasing the girls.
The group split recently, after an Islamic State-run magazine named Abu Musab Barnawi as the new leader of Boko Haram, angering Shekau and his followers. Both factions have since released video and audio statements attacking one another.
The spokesman warned in the video that no one would see the girls again unless the government stopped fighting the group and released Boko Haram prisoners.
“Presently, some of the girls are crippled, some are terribly sick and some of them, as I had said, died during bombardment by the Nigerian military,” the spokesman said. The video showed what the fighter said were the bodies of girls killed by airstrikes.
“Let me say again, release our people and we release your girls. Otherwise, they will never be released. If you think you have the power to come and rescue them, go ahead and try,” the spokesman said, according to a translation by Nigerian newspaper, the Premium Times.
The video was posted on Twitter on Sunday by a Nigerian journalist, Ahmad Salkida, who has Boko Haram contacts. The Nigerian army said it was seeking to question Salkida.
Boko Haram controlled a vast swath of territory in the north east of the country until last year, when a coalition of armies from Nigeria and neighboring countries drove the Islamist terrorist group out of all the major towns that it controlled.
The Nigerian air force has been bombing Boko Haram’s stronghold in the Sambisa forest, in the northeast, near the Cameroonian border.
Boko Haram’s scorched-earth policies have forced farmers off their land, stopped fishermen from fishing in Lake Chad and prevented the transport of food across the region, leaving a large area facing starvation. The policy appears to have hurt Boko Haram as much as it hurt surrounding communities, with many fighters surrendering to Nigeria’s military because of hunger.
The girls were kidnapped in April 2014 from their boarding school, where they had gathered for examinations. Boko Haram fighters stormed the school late at night, loaded the girls into trucks and took them away. Several dozen of the girls managed to escape by jumping from the trucks and running into the bush. One, Amina Ali, was recovered in May, married to a Boko Haram fighter, with a baby. But 218 are still missing.
A few weeks after they were kidnapped, about 100 of the girls were shown on video dressed in Islamic clothing. Some 15 were shown in a video released in May this year.
The Nigerian government, then under former President Goodluck Jonathan, was harshly criticized for failing to act swiftly to locate and recover the schoolgirls.
After the kidnapping, Shekau appeared in a video, grinning and laughing, calling the girls “slaves” and saying he planned to sell them in the market.
Activists in Nigeria initiated daily protests and the Twitter hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, triggering peaceful protests and garnering support from people around the world, including from First Lady Michelle Obama.