Colombia’s cemeteries may hold answers for families of disappeared

By Julia Symmes Cobb

LA DORADA, Colombia (Reuters) – When her 17-year-old son Jose Andres was kidnapped by paramilitaries at the height of Colombia’s civil conflict, Gloria Ines Urueña vowed she would not leave the sweltering riverside town of La Dorada until she found him.

She has been true to her word for more than two decades – searching for her son’s body despite threats from the group that killed him.

An estimated 120,000 people have gone missing during Colombia’s nearly 60 years of conflict. A 2016 peace deal between the government and the Marxist FARC rebels brought some respite, but another left-wing insurgency and armed criminal gangs – many descended from right-wing paramilitaries – persist.

Now a national plan to identify victims buried anonymously in cemeteries has renewed the hope Urueña and thousands like her hold of finding their loved ones’ remains.

The Search Unit for Disappeared People, founded under the 2016 deal to fulfill one of its key promises, is investigating cemeteries across Colombia, hoping to untangle years of chaotic record-keeping and neglect, identify remains, and return them to families.

“Back then, I spent a month looking near the river, near the dump, farms, all that, and I was alone,” said Urueña, as a forensic team examined human remains at La Dorada’s cemetery.

“I’ve always said I don’t just want to find my son: I want to find all of the disappeared.”

Many of Colombia’s disappeared were killed by leftist rebels, right-wing paramilitaries or the military. Others were kidnapped, forcibly recruited, or willingly joined armed groups.

Most are likely dead, buried in clandestine graves high in the windswept Andes or deep in thick jungle, dumped in rivers or ravines.

But some ended up in graveyards. Found by the roadside or pulled from waterways, remains were buried anonymously by locals risking the wrath of armed groups, their graves marked with NN for ‘no name’.

The strategy may be unique: the recovery of potentially tens of thousands of bodies from cemeteries has likely not been tried before, especially during an ongoing conflict.

Some remains have been moved or mixed together, exhumed multiple times during efforts to identify them or saved in trash bags in storage rooms.

Some remains have been assigned multiple case numbers, while others were buried in cemeteries but never autopsied and so have no case number at all.

Other remains have case numbers, but cannot be located.

“It’s not just a recovery of bodies, but also of information,” said unit head Luz Marina Monzon. “It’s a jigsaw puzzle.”

PIECING IT TOGETHER

The unit has no estimate of how many disappeared people may be in Colombia’s cemeteries. Many graveyards have had no consistent management or resources, or are run by religious organizations with their own records and rules.

DNA from nearly 5,200 unidentified bodies is stored in a database at the government’s National Institute of Legal Medicine, along with nearly 44,400 samples from families of the disappeared to cross-check genetic material with newly-discovered remains.

The institute also holds a separate database of reports of missing people. So far, the unit has uncovered some 15,000 reports of disappeared persons that were not previously in it.

Threats to families and ex-combatants providing information to the unit can stymie its work, Monzon said.

“The persistence of the armed conflict is a huge challenge to accessing information, to accessing locations and to guaranteeing the participation of victims in the search,” Monzon said.

This scale of cemetery exhumations is unusual, largely because many people disappeared in countries like Argentina, Chile, Bosnia, Guatemala and Kosovo were buried in clandestine graves. Scattered graveyard exhumations have been conducted in some places.

But Colombia’s effort may hold particular lessons for Mexico, which is facing perhaps the world’s most active disappearance crisis and where the unidentified are sometimes buried in cemeteries but rarely exhumed.

“Mexico needs to start looking at what the Colombians are doing,” said Dr. Arely Cruz-Santiago of the University of Exeter, who researches citizen forensics in Mexico and Colombia. “Especially because they are very similar countries in the sense of the scale more or less of the conflict.”

BONES IN BAGS

Beads of sweat bloomed at the temples of forensic anthropologist Carlos Ariza as he cradled a cranium in one hand, using his finger to indicate the bullet’s likely trajectory.

This skull belonged to a man, about 40. Later during the examination in a stifling tent in La Dorada’s cemetery, Ariza discovered a second bullet hole in the cranium, hidden under caked mud.

“NN Mar. 17 2003,” read the label on the plastic trash bag which had held the remains in a dark storage room.

Over a few days, forensic staff opened the bags, delicately removing each bone, fragment of fabric or tuft of hair. They packed 27 sets of remains off to a regional lab for DNA testing.

La Dorada lies in the southernmost point of the Magdalena Medio region east of Medellin, once a hotbed of violence where hundreds of thousands of people were murdered, disappeared, raped and displaced.

Paramilitary groups were frequent perpetrators. They demobilized between 2003 and 2006 under a peace deal, though many members later formed crime gangs.

HOW MUCH LONGER?

About a month after Urueña’s son was taken in 2001, two men showed up at her house in La Dorada on a motorcycle and told her to stop looking.

“‘He was my son and I will not move from this house until I know what’s become of him. And if your boss wants to kill me that’s my answer’,” she said she responded. “I told him ‘do it now if you want and that way you’ll end my suffering too.'”

Jose used to bring his mother flowers on his way home. When his sister became pregnant as a teenager, he helped support the baby.

“If he were here it would be different, as much for the family as for me, because the family fell apart,” Urueña said.

Her older son fled town in the face of paramilitary threats, not returning for 11 years. Her older daughter left to find work, leaving Urueña to raise her grandchildren.

Her granddaughter, now 18, has promised Urueña she will continue the search for Jose even after Urueña’s death.

“We ask how much longer we have to wait,” Urueña said. “Even though the years pass, I am still full of hope.”

“And though you don’t want to cry, the tears come.”

(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb, additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City, Nicolas Misculin in Buenos Aires, Gabriela Donoso in Santiago, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Daria Sito-Sucic in Sarajevo, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Gunmen abduct 30 students in northwest Nigeria as payoffs ‘boomerang’

By Garba Muhammad

KADUNA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Gunmen kidnapped around 30 students in an overnight raid on a forestry college in northwest Nigeria, an official said on Friday, the fourth mass school abduction since December in a country where violence is on the increase.

An armed gang broke into the Federal College of Forestry Mechanization, located on the outskirts of Kaduna city near a military academy, at around 11:30 p.m. (2230 GMT) on Thursday, Kaduna state’s security commissioner, Samuel Aruwan said.

After a distress call, the army rescued 180 people in the early hours of Friday but “about 30 students, a mix of males and females, are yet to be accounted for,” he said.

“A combined team of army, air force, police and DSS (Department of State Services) troops are conducting an operation to track the missing students.”

The city is the capital of Kaduna state, part of a region where banditry has festered for years. Hours before the kidnapping, Nigeria’s federal government said it would “take out” abductors after earlier criticizing local deals to free victims.

Kaduna resident Haruna Salisu said he had heard sporadic gunshots at around 11:30 p.m. on Thursday from the area of the compound, where the concrete perimeter wall had a large hole in it on Friday.

“We were not panicking, thinking that it was a normal military exercise being conducted at the (nearby) Nigerian Defense Academy,” he said by phone.

“We came out for dawn prayers, at 5:20 a.m., and saw some of the students, teachers and security personnel all over the school premises. They told us that gunmen raided the school and abducted some of the students.”

On Friday morning, relatives of students gathered at the gates of the college, which was surrounded by around 20 army trucks.

RANSOM

The trend of abduction from boarding schools was started by the jihadist group Boko Haram, which seized 270 schoolgirls from a school at Chibok in the northeast in 2014. Around 100 of them have never been found.

Armed criminal gangs seeking ransom have since carried out copycat attacks.

Within the last few weeks, 279 schoolgirls were freed after being abducted from their boarding school at Jangebe in northwest Nigeria’s Zamfara state. In the north-central state of Niger, 27 teenage boys were released after being kidnapped from their school, along with three staff and 12 family members. One student was shot dead in that attack.

Military and police attempts to tackle the gangs have had little success, while many worry that state authorities are making the situation worse by letting kidnappers go unpunished, paying them off or providing incentives.

In Zamfara, state government officials said they had given ‘reformed bandits’ access to land for cattle grazing, while also building schools and medical facilities. They do not specifically identify the recipients as kidnappers.

In late February, the presidency said President Muhammadu Buhari had urged state governments to “review their policy of rewarding bandits with money and vehicles, warning that the policy might boomerang disastrously.”

Buhari held talks with security officials and traditional leaders on Thursday to discuss the country’s multiple security challenges. The national security adviser, Babagana Monguno, after the talks said the government would take a tough stance on criminal gangs.

“The new direction of government is to come out with full force. We have decided to apply the full weight of the law. We will come down on them wherever we locate them and take them out,” he told reporters in the capital, Abuja, without providing further details.

The unrest has become a political problem for Buhari, a retired general and former military ruler who has faced mounting criticism over the rise in violent crime, and replaced his long-standing military chiefs earlier this year.

(Additional reporting by Tife Owolabi in Yenagoa, Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos, Felix Onuah in Abuja, and Maiduguri Newsroom; Writing by Kevin Liffey and Alexis Akwagyiram; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

‘They said they’ll shoot’: Nigerian schoolgirls recount kidnap ordeal

By Afolabi Sotunde and Seun Sanni

GUSAU, Nigeria (Reuters) – Gunmen have freed all 279 girls kidnapped from a boarding school in northwest Nigeria, officials said on Tuesday, as victims told how their abductors had beaten and threatened to shoot them.

The pupils from Jangebe, a town in Zamfara state, were seized just after midnight on Friday. All had now been freed, Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle said.

Umma Abubakar, among those released, described their ordeal.

“Most of us got injured on our feet and we could not continue trekking, so they said they will shoot anybody who did not continue to walk,” she told Reuters.

Boarding schools in northern Nigeria have become targets for mass kidnappings for ransom by armed criminal gangs, a trend started by the jihadist group Boko Haram and continued by its offshoot, Islamic State West Africa Province.

Friday’s raid on the Government Girls Science Secondary School was the second such abduction in little over a week in the northwest, a region increasingly targeted by gangs.

Governor Matawalle said “repentant bandits” working with the government under an amnesty program had helped secure the Jangebe girls’ release.

“Those repentant ones are working for us, and they are working for the government and they are working for security,” he said.

Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the rise in abductions has been fueled in part by sizeable government payoffs in exchange for child hostages.

The national government denies this, and President Muhammadu Buhari warned on Tuesday against making payoffs.

Matawalle’s special media adviser, Zailani Bappa, said Zamfara authorities had paid no ransom for the Jangebe girls.

Initial reports put the number kidnapped at 317, but Zamfara government spokesman Sulaiman Tanau Anka said the total was 279, as some of the girls had run into the bush at the time of the raid.

‘THEY HIT US WITH GUNS’

Reuters journalists in Zamfara’s state capital, Gusau, saw dozens of girls in Muslim veils sitting in a hall in a state government building. A few parents arrived, and one father wept with joy after seeing his daughter.

Most of the girls appeared unharmed, but at least a dozen were sent to hospital.

Farida Lawali, 15, told how she and the other girls had been taken to a forest by the kidnappers.

“They carried the sick ones that cannot move. We were walking in the stones and thorns,” she said, sitting in the government house building, covered in a light blue veil.

“They started hitting us with guns so that we could move,” she added. “While they were beating them with guns, some of them were crying and moving at the same time.”

President Buhari said news of the girls’ release brought “overwhelming joy,” while warning that ransom payments would continue to encourage abductions, and urging the police and the military to bring the kidnappers to justice.

One father, whose seven daughters were among those kidnapped and freed, said the incident would not deter him from schooling his children.

“It’s a ploy to deny our girls … from getting the Western education in which we are far behind,” Lawal Abdullahi told Reuters. “We should not succumb to blackmail. My advice to government is that they should take immediate precautions to stop further abductions.”

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF urged the Nigerian government to protect schools so children will not be fearful of going to school, and parents afraid of sending their children to school.

As recently as Saturday, gunmen released 27 teenage boys who had been kidnapped from their school on Feb. 17 in Niger state.

In 2014, Boko Haram abducted more than 270 schoolgirls from the northeasterly town of Chibok, in Nigeria’s most high-profile school kidnapping. Around 100 remain missing.

(Reporting by Afolabi Sotunde in Gusaur and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Additional reporting by Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Seun Sanni in Gusau, Hamza Ibrahim in Kano, Felix Onuah in Abuja and Maiduguri Newsroom; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Giles Elgood; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and John Stonestreet)

For Yazidis, Baghdadi’s death ‘doesn’t feel like justice yet’

For Yazidis, Baghdadi’s death ‘doesn’t feel like justice yet’
By Raya Jalabi

SHARYA CAMP, Iraq (Reuters) – Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death will mean nothing to 19-year-old rape victim Jamila unless the Islamic State militants who enslaved her are brought to justice.

Jamila, who asked not to be identified by her last name, is one of thousands of women from the Yazidi minority religion who were kidnapped and raped by IS after it mounted an assault on the Yazidi homeland in northern Iraq in August 2014.

“Even if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, it doesn’t mean Islamic State is dead,” Jamila told Reuters outside the tent that is now her temporary home in the Sharya camp for displaced Yazidis in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region.

“This doesn’t feel like justice yet,” she said. “I want the men who took me, who raped me, to stand trial. And I want to have my voice heard in court. I want to face them in court … Without proper trials, his death has no meaning.”

Baghdadi, who had led IS since 2010, detonated a suicide vest after being cornered in a raid by U.S. special forces in northwest Syria, U.S. President Donald Trump announced on Sunday.

Inspired by his edicts to enslave and slaughter Yazidis, whom IS regard as infidels, his followers shot, beheaded and kidnapped thousands in a rampage which the United Nations called a genocidal campaign against them.

Along with thousands of other women and children, Jamila said she was enslaved by the militants and kept in captivity for five months in the city of Mosul along with her sister.

She was just 14 when she was seized. But her problems did not end after she and her sister managed to escape when, she said, their guards were high on drugs.

“When I first came back, I had a nervous breakdown and psychological problems for two years, so I couldn’t go to school,” she said.

Now instead of working or catching up on her years of lost schooling, she looks after her mother, with whom she shares her cramped tent at the camp.

“My mother can’t walk and has health problems so I have to stay and take care of her because my older siblings are in Germany,” she said.

NO PLANS TO GO HOME

The prospect of going home to Sinjar in northern Iraq is not an option for Jamila, and many others. The city still lies in ruin four years after the IS onslaught, and suspicion runs deep in the ethnically mixed area.

“Sinjar is completely destroyed. Even if we could go back, I wouldn’t want to because we’d be surrounded by the same Arab neighbors who all joined IS in the first place, and helped them kill us (Yazidis),” she said.

Thousands of men are being tried in Iraqi courts for their ties to IS. Iraq has so far not allowed victims to testify in court, something community leaders and human rights groups say would go a long way in the healing process.

“It is deplorable that not a single victim of Islamic State’s horrific abuses including sexual slavery has gotten their day in court,” said Belkis Wille, Iraq Researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Iraq’s justice system is designed to allow the state to exact mass revenge against suspects, not provide real accountability for victims.”

For some of the nearly 17,000 Yazidis at the Sharya camp, Baghdadi’s death was a first step in that direction though they fear the IS fighters who are still alive.

Mayan Sinu, 25, can dream of a new life after the camp as she and her three children have been granted asylum by Australia. But she also wants the men who shot her husband in the legs and dragged him off to be brought to justice. He has been missing since the incident five years ago.

“I hope Baghdadi is suffering more than we ever did, and my God we suffered,” said Sinu. “I wish he (Baghdadi) hadn’t blown himself up so I could have slaughtered him myself with my bare hands.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Deputy of Venezuela’s Guaido arrested and dragged away by tow truck

FILE PHOTO: Juan Guaido (R), new President of the National Constituent Assembly and lawmaker of the Venezuelan opposition party Popular Will (Partido Voluntad Popular), and lawmaker Edgar Zambrano of Democratic Action party (Accion Democratica), leave the congress after Guaido's swearing-in ceremony, in Caracas, Venezuela January 5, 2019. REUTERS/Manaure Quintero/File Photo

By Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuelan intelligence agents detained opposition leader Juan Guaido’s congressional deputy on Wednesday, using a tow truck to drag his vehicle away with him inside, prompting the U.S. government to warn of “consequences” if he was not released.

The SEBIN intelligence agency seized Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, which Guaido heads, in the first arrest of a lawmaker since Guaido tried to spark a military uprising last week to bring down President Nicolas Maduro’s government.

Venezuela’s pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly agreed on Tuesday to strip Zambrano and six other lawmakers of their parliamentary immunity to allow their future prosecution. The opposition does not recognize the assembly’s decisions.

The Supreme Court had earlier accused those lawmakers of conspiracy, rebellion and treason, and accused another three opposition legislators of the same crimes on Wednesday.

The opposition says Maduro has stacked the court with his own supporters, while the U.S. government this week threatened to sanction all its members.

The U.S. government’s Venezuelan embassy, now based in Washington, said Zambrano’s “arbitrary detention” was “illegal and inexcusable.”

“Maduro and his accomplices are those directly responsible for Zambrano’s security. If he is not immediately freed, there will be consequences,” the embassy said on Twitter.

An attempted uprising last week led by Guaido, recognized by the United States and other Western countries as the rightful head of state, failed to dislodge Maduro, as have a series of U.S. sanctions against his government. Maduro decried the events as an attempted coup.

“One of the principal conspirators of the coup has just been arrested,” Diosdado Cabello, head of the Constituent Assembly, said in comments broadcast on state television.

“They will have to pay before the courts for the failed coup that they attempted,” he said.

‘KIDNAPPED’

Zambrano said on Twitter at about 6.40 pm local time (2240 GMT) SEBIN agents had surrounded his vehicle outside the headquarters of his Democratic Action party in Caracas’ La Florida district.

“We were surprised by the SEBIN, and after refusing to let us leave our vehicle, they used a tow truck to forcibly transfer us directly to the (SEBIN headquarters) Helicoide,” he said. It was not yet clear if Zambrano was already at the Helicoide.

Guaido said on Twitter: “The regime has kidnapped the first vice president.”

Guaido invoked the constitution in January to assume an interim presidency, denouncing Maduro as illegitimate after he secured re-election last year in a vote widely viewed as fraudulent. Maduro has overseen the collapse of Venezuela’s economy, which has shrunk by half over the past five years, forcing more than 3 million Venezuelans to emigrate.

The Constituent Assembly removed Guaido’s parliamentary immunity in early April. Authorities have not tried to arrest him since then, but Maduro has said he will “face justice.”

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has threatened Maduro’s government with a harsh response should it ever detain Guaido.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Supreme Court’s head, Maikel Moreno, rebuffed the U.S. government’s threats to sanction his court’s members if they did not reject Maduro’s government and Guaido.

The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Moreno and the seven principal members of the court’s constitutional chamber in 2017 for rulings that “usurped the authority” of the National Assembly.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the Trump administration would soon sanction the 25 remaining members of the court. Pence said the United States was lifting economic sanctions on a former Venezuelan general who turned against Maduro in order to encourage other Maduro allies to follow suit.

The head of the Organization of American States, Luis Almagro, said: “We demand the SEBIN stop the intimidation, respect the lawmakers’ parliamentary immunities, and immediately release Edgar Zambrano.”

(Reporting by Angus Berwick and Mayela Armas; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Lisa Shumaker and Paul Tait)

Uganda says kidnapped American tourist did not take armed guard

Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda

KAMPALA (Reuters) – An American woman who was kidnapped with her driver at Uganda’s most popular wildlife park by gunmen had failed to take an armed ranger as required by the park’s regulations, a spokesman for the country’s wildlife authority said on Thursday.

Kimberley Sue Endecott, 35, and Ugandan driver Jean Paul were on a game drive in Queen Elizabeth National Park when four gunmen ambushed their vehicle on Tuesday evening, police said.

An elderly couple also at the scene were not taken and raised the alarm.

Various illegal groups from Somali militant Islamists to Congolese-based rebels sometimes operate in Uganda, but the kidnappers’ identity was not known.

“We have armed ranger guides, if you’re going out on a drive in the park you’re supposed to have one but these tourists went out on their own without a guard,” Bashir Hangi, spokesman for the state-run Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), told Reuters.

“From their camp in the park, they just got into a vehicle and went out. They should have notified us and informed us that they’re going out for a game drive and then we would have availed them a guard but they didn’t do this.”

California-based Endecott and the couple entered Uganda on March 29 and flew the next day to the park in the country’s southwest, the spokesman added.

There was no immediate comment on the progress of the investigation by Ugandan authorities.

(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Japanese journalist apologizes, recounts days as hostage in Syria

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, bows during a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Jumpei Yasuda, a Japanese journalist held by militants in Syria for more than three years, said on Friday he told his captors to deafen him if they suspected he was eavesdropping on their conversations.

Yasuda, 44, said it was one of the darkest moments before his release last month, ending what he called 40 months of physical and psychological “hell”.

“I told them to burst my eardrums and destroy my ears if they don’t like to be heard so much,” the freelance journalist said at the first news conference since his return on Oct 25.

Wearing a black suit and dark blue necktie, and with his greying beard trimmed short, Yasuda bowed in front of reporters and rows of television cameras before taking questions.

Yasuda said he was fully accountable for his actions.

“I would like to offer my apology and express my gratitude to those who worked for my release, and who were worried about me,” he said in a somber voice.

“I am very sorry that my conduct has had the Japanese government involved in this matter,” Yasuda added.

He was captured almost immediately after entering Syria on foot from Turkey in June 2015 and moved from one detention facility to another routinely over the 40 months.

At one location, he was not allowed to make any noise — even the sound of breathing through his nose or cracking of his knuckles — making it virtually impossible for him to move.

“In their logic, my making noise seemed to mean I moved to eavesdrop on what’s going on. So, whenever I made noise, they started doing things like torture (other hostages) and turn off the light,” Yasuda said.

At one point, he didn’t eat for 20 days in an effort to avoid any movement. It left him thin and nauseated.

He later converted to Islam because it allowed him more freedom of movement.

“As a Muslim, you must pray five times a day. As I could move only twice a day during meal time, conversion to Islam meant five additional occasions for me to move,” he said.

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, addresses a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, addresses a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

RECKLESS OR COURAGEOUS?

It was not the first time Yasuda had been detained in the Middle East. He was held in Iraq in 2004 and criticized at home for drawing the government into negotiations for his release.

Yasuda’s latest release, which made front-page news in Japan, rekindled debate about reporting from war zones that some see as reckless adventure and others as courageous journalism.

“My own conduct caused trouble for the Japanese government as well as many people. It is only natural I take criticism,” Yasuda said.

However, he defended the need for on-the-ground reporting in conflict zones.

“States kill people in war. Information is absolutely necessary for people to decide if such an act is acceptable,” Yasuda said. “Information for that purpose should come not only from the states involved but from a third party as well.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thanked Qatar and Turkey for their cooperation after Yasuda was released, but Japan’s government said it did not pay a ransom.

Japanese media have reported he was held hostage by the Nusra Front, but Yasuda said he was not told the identity of his captors and he had no idea what had triggered his release.

Asked if he would go back to war reporting, Yasuda said he didn’t know.

“I am thinking I should be good to my parents. So, I could be more cautious in the way I conduct my reporting from now on.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; editing by Darren Schuettler)

Nigeria’s Boko Haram has abducted more than 1,000 children since 2013: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun/File Photo

ABUJA (Reuters) – Islamist fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram group have abducted more than 1,000 children in the northeast since 2013, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Friday.

The militants regularly took youngsters to spread fear and show power, the agency said on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, a case that triggered global outrage.

“Children in northeastern Nigeria continue to come under attack at a shocking scale,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF’s Nigeria head.

The agency said it had documented more than 1,000 verified cases, the first time it had published an estimated tally. But the actual number could be much larger, it added.

It said it had interviewed one young woman, Khadija, now 17, who was abducted after a Boko Haram attack on her town, then locked in a room, forced to marry one of the fighters and repeatedly raped.

She became pregnant and “now lives with her young son in an IDP (displaced persons) camp, where she has struggled to integrate with the other women due to language barriers and the stigma of being a ‘Boko Haram wife’,” UNICEF said.

At least 2,295 teachers have been killed and more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed in the conflict, it added.

POLITICALLY CHARGED

The Boko Haram conflict is in its tenth year, but shows little sign of ending. In February, one faction kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi, previously untouched by the war.

A month later, the militants returned almost all of those girls. About five died while in Boko Haram hands. One other, Leah Sharibu, remains captive because she refused to convert to Islam, her freed classmates have said.

The government said the release was a prelude to ceasefire talks, though some insurgency experts disagree, saying it violated that faction’s ideology to kidnap Muslims.

Boko Haram remains a charged issue politically. President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 rode to power on promises to end the insurgency. But his administration has failed to defeat Boko Haram, despite pushing the militants out of many towns in the northeast by 2016.

On Monday, Buhari said he plans to seek re-election in 2019.

Four years since the Chibok abduction, about 100 of the schoolgirls are unaccounted for. Some may be dead, according to testimony from the rescued girls and Boko Haram experts.

Boko Haram in January released a video purporting to show some of the missing Chibok girls, saying they wish to remain with their captors.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

U.S. envoy meets families of Japanese abducted by North Korea

A family member of a Japanese national abducted by North Korean agents greets U.S. ambassador to Japan William Hagerty after their meeting in Tokyo, Japan, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – The U.S. ambassador to Japan on Tuesday met the families of people abducted by North Korea decades ago to train its spies, just a week before Japan’s prime minister is expected to raise the emotive topic at a summit with U.S. President Donald Trump.

The issue is a top domestic priority for premier Shinzo Abe, whose support has been undermined by scandals over suspected cronyism and cover-ups.

But Japan worries it could take a back seat to nuclear and missile issues in a series of summits planned with North Korea.

North Korea admitted in 2002 it had kidnapped 13 Japanese in the 1970s and 1980s to train as spies, and five of them returned to Japan. Abe has said he will not rest until all 13 have come home, making the issue a keystone of his political career.

Sakie Yokota (R), mother of Megumi Yokota who was abducted by North Korea agents at age 13 in 1977, meets U.S. ambassador to Japan William Hagerty in Tokyo, Japan, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

Sakie Yokota (R), mother of Megumi Yokota who was abducted by North Korea agents at age 13 in 1977, meets U.S. ambassador to Japan William Hagerty in Tokyo, Japan, April 10, 2018. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

In an apparent nod to Japan’s concerns, U.S. Ambassador William Hagerty and his wife met abductees’ family members, such as Sakie Yokota, whose daughter Megumi was snatched from a beach as a teenager 40 years ago.

Trump, who met Yokota among other relatives of abductees when he visited Japan in November, has incorporated the story of Megumi into his attacks on Pyongyang.

“Even today, as we speak, we don’t know where they are, what life they are pursuing,” Yokota said. “We haven’t even seen one single photograph of them.

“The only thing we are asking for is to help our children who were kidnapped … captured on their way back from school, and forced upon ships and taken away to a land they did not know.”

Hagerty told them their plight had not been forgotten, pledging to convey their stories to Trump ahead of the summit.

“We’re deeply saddened by the misery these family members have endured,” he said after a meeting of roughly an hour at his residence in central Tokyo.

“I know that this issue is high on the list of priorities for both President Trump and Prime Minister Abe,” he told reporters.

Trump was the third president met by Yokota and the others. In the past, they have expressed frustration at how long their struggle has lasted, and appealed for action.

“That there has not been a result is very tough for us, who have suffered by not having any chance to meet our loved ones for such a long time,” said Shigeo Iizuka, whose sister, Yaeko Taguchi, was taken in 1978, leaving behind two infants in a creche.

“We ask for your personal contribution to tell President Trump that he must demand that North Korea give back the Japanese victims.”

(Reporting by Elaine Lies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Militants free scores of abducted Nigerian schoolgirls after month in captivity

Some of the newly-released Dapchi schoolgirls are pictured in Jumbam village, Yobe State, Nigeria March 21, 2018. REUTERS/REUTERS/Ola Lanre

By Ola Lanre and Abraham Achirga

DAPCHI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Islamist militants freed scores of kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls on Wednesday, driving them back into the town where they had been captured a month ago.

The captors gave no reason for their release, which triggered celebrations and tears, but the government denied that a ransom had been paid. Several of the girls said some of their friends had died in captivity and one was still being held.

The fighters from the Boko Haram group, some shouting “God is greatest”, drove the girls back into the northeast town of Dapchi in a line of trucks in the morning and dropped them off before leaving, witnesses told Reuters. Some residents fled as the convoy rolled in.

“I don’t know why they brought us back but they said because we are children of Muslims,” one of the freed girls, Khadija Grema, told Reuters.

After the release, in the nearby village of Jumbam, some of the girls held each other and wept, huddling on the ground in beige hijabs as residents stood around them.

Aliyu Maina, reunited with his 13-year-old daughter, said the fighters “stopped and blocked the road, they didn’t talk to anybody, they didn’t greet anybody”.

“They said people should make space for people to recognize their children and I got my child.”

Boko Haram has waged a insurgency for nine years in northeast Nigeria and neighboring states in which tens of thousands of people have been killed, more than 2 million displaced and thousands abducted.

A 2015 military campaign drove the group from most territory it controlled, but much of the area remains beyond government rule, and insurgents still stage attacks from strongholds near Lake Chad.

The kidnapping of 110 girls aged 11-19 on Feb. 19 from Dapchi was the biggest mass abduction since Boko Haram took more than 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014 – a case that triggered international outrage.

Dapchi residents said more than 100 girls had returned on Wednesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, the Nigerian government was transporting the girls by bus to Maiduguri, one of the largest cities in the northeast and the hub for the fight against Boko Haram.

“One girl is still with them because she is a Christian,” said Grema, the freed student. “About five are dead but it was not as if they killed them – it was because of the stress and trauma that made them tired and weak.”

“They didn’t harm us,” Grema added. “They were giving us food, very good food. We didn’t have any problem.”

She described how, after the kidnapping, the girls were transported by car and canoe, moving through villages and along waterways to a safehouse.

Another girl who gave her name as Fatima said two of her friends were among those who died, trampled as they were being transported.

“They kept us in a big, covered house where no one could spot where we were, even by air we could not be seen,” said Fatima.

Muhammad Bursari said his niece Hadiza Muhammed, another of the freed girls, told him the remaining student was still in captivity because she had refused to convert to Islam.

NO RANSOM

Nigeria’s information minister, Lai Mohammed, said in a statement 101 released girls had been registered so far.

“No ransom was paid to them to effect this release,” he told Reuters separately. The only condition they gave us is not to release (the girls) to the military but release them in the town of Dapchi without the military presence.”

Nigeria had secured the release “through back-channel efforts and with the help of some friends of the country,” Mohammed said in the statement.

“For the release to work, the government had a clear understanding that violence and confrontation would not be the way out as it could endanger the lives of the girls, hence a non-violent approach was the preferred option,” it said.

Boko Haram never explained why the girls were taken, but many Nigerians speculated that the goal was ransom. Boko Haram received millions of euros for the release of some of the Chibok girls last year.

The abduction piled pressure on President Muhammadu Buhari, who came to power in 2015 promising to crack down on the insurgency. He is expected to seek re-election next year.

Mohammed Dala said he had found his 12-year-old daughter in a crowd of the girls in the center of town.

“Some motors painted in military color came with our girls,” he told Reuters. “They (the militants) … said we should not flee. They dropped the girls at the center of town, near Ali’s tea shop. I found my daughter and left.”

Most of the other girls were taken to a hospital guarded by the military, witnesses said.

(Reporting by Ola Lanre and Abraham Achirga in Dapchi, Afolabi Sotunde and Felix Onuah in Abuja, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi and Ahmed Kingimi in Maiduguri; Writing by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Peter Graff)