A month after abducting 110 schoolgirls from a northeast Nigerian boarding school, Boko Haram militants freed almost all of them Wednesday — bringing relief to many families, but raising questions about what triggered the girls' release.
"Ah, I feel — wow! I can't say anything now," a jubilant Yahaya Tarbutu told VOA by phone, as he celebrated the return of his three daughters and many of their classmates to the farming town of Dapchi.
Lai Mohammed, Nigeria's information minister, said at a news conference in Abuja that the militants had released 91 girls and one boy around 3 a.m. local time at various spots along a road into the town. A subsequent government report said 101 had been freed.
Mohammed said the girls — kidnapped Feb. 19 from the Government Girls' School and Technical College in Dapchi — were freed through "back-channel efforts, and with the help of some friends of the country, and it was unconditional."
"No money changed hands," he emphasized.
Last week, President Muhammadu Buhari visited Dapchi and assured parents that the girls would be released through negotiations rather than by military force.
Local residents reported the militants drove most of the girls back to Dapchi in a nine-vehicle convoy, dropped them off and left.
"We are freed because we are Muslim girls, and they didn't want us to suffer. That is why they released us," Khadija Grema said, according to The Associated Press. The news agency reported that she said a Christian classmate still was detained.
Various news media also were reporting five girls had died. However, the government had blocked roads and journalists' access to the remote farming town early Wednesday, making it difficult to verify information.
In Dapchi, grief gave way to relief for parents such as Tarbutu, whose daughters were returned around 8 a.m.
"I have Amina Yahaya Tarbutu. I have Fatima Yahaya Tarbutu and Maryam Mohammed. Seriously, they are happy," he told VOA from Dapchi. "We are together with them. I take them — I go and take [a] bath, they take [a] bath. I give them pop and bread, and they ate bread."
Tarbutu's daughters were on their way to a government hospital in Yobe state's capital, Damaturu, for medical exams.
A government official said the freed students would be quarantined at the hospital and would receive psychological counseling.
Another of the released girls, 15-year-old Fatuma Abdullahi, said that two of her friends had died en route to Dapchi but that neither she nor most of her classmates were harmed.
"I swear to God, they didn't do anything to us," Fatuma said of the militants. The girl was with her father, who joined in a phone interview with VOA. "We were the ones who were cooking for ourselves, and they provided the means. Aisha and Maimuna were among the five girls who [were] lost — died."
In April 2014, the radical Islamist group abducted 276 girls from a boarding school in the town of Chibok, about 275 km, or 171 miles, southwest of Dapchi. More than 100 remain missing from that attack, which sparked international outrage and the #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign.
On Tuesday, Amnesty International said the Nigerian military ignored repeated warnings about the movements of Boko Haram fighters before the recent kidnapping. The military denied the charge.
Boko Haram's name, roughly translated from the Hausa language, means "Western education is forbidden."
The extremists delivered a fresh warning when they deposited the girls, Dapchi resident Ba'ana Musa told the AP. Musa relayed their message: "We did it out of pity. And don't ever put your daughters in school again."
Parents shouldn't let the attacks dissuade them from sending their children to school, said Khadijat Bukar Abba Ibrahim, Nigeria's minister of state for foreign affairs and a former representative of the Yobe state.
"We, as a government, will just fortify the schools in order to make them safe for children to actually go and learn," she told reporters at Wednesday's Abuja news conference with Mohammed.
Ibrahim said Buhari had directed security agencies to have troops at every school. She also said some far-flung schools might be consolidated, in hopes that they would be less vulnerable.
But she made no guarantees of absolute safety.
"We must look at this thing in context," Ibrahim said, citing the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people.
"Insurgency all over the world is a global issue," she said, "and the government must always be on its toes."
The Abuja-based Unity Foundation, an advocacy group affiliated with #BringBackOurGirls, released a statement March 13 chastising "our incompetent federal government" for its inability to prevent the second "terrorist abduction of schoolgirls."
The four-page statement challenged government officials' decisions on security, military response and search-and-rescue missions, as well as on information sharing.
VOA Hausa Service's Umar Farouk Musa reported from Abuja, Nigeria, and VOA correspondent Chika Oduah reported from Dakar, Senegal.