LAGOS, Nigeria — They have been gone a year now, the hundreds of girls abducted by Islamic militants from their school in Chibok, Nigeria. And while the cry to “Bring Back Our Girls” remains a worldwide cause, the country’s next leader is not making the promise that his predecessor did — that they will be brought home.
“Never to be forgotten” is the new slogan adopted Tuesday by campaigners, replacing “Bring Back Our Girls — Now and Alive!”
On the first anniversary of the day 276 schoolgirls were snatched in the middle of the night from their boarding school in northeastern Nigeria, President-elect Muhammadu Buhari says he must be honest about the prospects of getting the 219 girls who are still missing back to their families.
“We do not know if the Chibok girls can be rescued. Their whereabouts remain unknown,” Buhari said in a statement. “As much as I wish to, I cannot promise that we can find them.”
On Tuesday, 219 girls dubbed “Chibok ambassadors” marched solemnly through Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, each carrying a placard with the name of the missing girl they represent.
“We are here to appeal to the government to do better, we want our girls now and alive,” said Solamipe Onifade, 16.
A candlelight march was planned for after sundown.
In Chibok, dozens of family members and supporters gathered at the remains of the school, in front of a burned out and roofless classroom, to mark the anniversary. Young girls held hand-written placards demanding “Bring back our girls — Now and Alive.”
One mother, Mariam Abubakar, told the crowd she was in disbelief that the government had been unable to rescue the girls during a whole year.
The statement by Buhari, a former military ruler of Nigeria who was democratically elected on March 28, is a marked departure from President Goodluck Jonathan, who, after his administration initially denied there had been a kidnapping, made repeated hollow promises that the girls would be rescued. Buhari takes over May 29.
A year after the April 14-15 mass abduction by Boko Haram gunmen from the town of Chibok, hope has dwindled.
Several dozen girls managed to escape as the kidnappers were taking the hostages to the Sambisa Forest in northeast Nigeria, some clinging to the branches of trees above a moving open-back truck to get away. Those who remain missing may have been split up. Some witnesses said some girls were taken across the border into Cameroon. Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed they had converted to Islam and been married off to his fighters.
A negotiator said that at least three died in the early days, from a snake bite, malaria and dysentery. Then, Jonathan refused to negotiate with Boko Haram, who were offering to exchange the girls for arrested insurgents.
A hopeful message addressed to the captives from Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai promises the girls scholarships and says they must never lose courage.
The 17-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate — who has stood up to the Taliban — chastised Jonathan’s administration and the international community.
“Nigerian leaders and the international community have not done enough to help you. They must do much more to help secure your release,” Malala said. The activist for girls’ education spent her birthday in Nigeria in July, meeting with the parents of the kidnapped girls and persuading Jonathan also to finally meet some of the parents.
She said she and millions of people around the world stand in solidarity with those called “the Chibok girls.”
“We cannot imagine the full extent of the horrors you have endured. But please know this: we will never forget you. We will always stand with you. Today and every day, we call on the Nigerian authorities and the international community to do more to bring you home.”
On Monday, a few dozen BringBackOurGirls campaigners marched in Abuja, their mouths shut by red tape.
“When your voice is taken from you, which is what the terrorists have done to our daughters, you can?t speak, you don’t exist. But our girls exist,” said organizer Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister who is one of the organizers.
The campaign said the Empire State Building in New York will be lit up Tuesday night, in the campaign’s purple and red colors symbolizing its call for an end to violence against women and girls.
At least 2,000 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since 2014, Amnesty International said Tuesday. Unknown hundreds of boys and young men also have been kidnapped.
When Boko Haram started using young women and girls as suicide bombers last year, many wondered whether some were the Chibok girls. And when some of the insurgents beheaded women they have forced into marriage as they fled a new military offensive on the border town of Bama last month, there was more speculation.
Back in Chibok, several of their parents have died, some killed in Boko Haram attacks, some of illnesses like high blood pressure that residents blame on the trauma related to their lost daughters.
The Boko Haram attacks continue despite a multinational military offensive that has ousted the Islamic extremists from all major towns in Nigeria’s northeast in recent weeks. Scores held captive by Boko Haram have been freed. But there has been no whisper of the girls.