They have been gone a year now, the hundreds of girls abducted by Islamic militants from their school in northeastern Nigeria.
And while the cry to “Bring Back Our Girls” remains a worldwide cause, the new president Tuesday would not repeat his predecessor’s failed promise to find them — only that they won’t be forgotten.
A solemn march was held to remember the 219 girls seized from their boarding school in Chibok by gunmen from the Boko Haram terrorist group. In Nigeria’s capital of Abuja, 219 girls paraded in the streets, with each carrying a placard bearing the name of a kidnap victim.
“We believe the girls are still alive,” said Dr. Allan Manasseh, the brother of missing 18-year-old Maryamu Wavi, in an interview with The Associated Press.
But it was clear that hope has dwindled a year after the April 14-15 mass abduction.
President-elect Muhammadu Buhari said he must be honest about the prospects of getting the missing girls 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.”
The statement by Buhari, a former military ruler of Nigeria who was elected last month and takes over on May 29, is a marked departure from President Goodluck Jonathan. After Jonathan’s administration initially denied there had even been a kidnapping, he made repeated hollow promises that the girls would be rescued.
Campaigners have replaced the slogan of “Bring Back Our Girls — Now and Alive!” with a new one: “Never to be forgotten.”
Still, some of the marchers Tuesday held the new leadership accountable.
“We are here to appeal to the government to do better. We want our girls now and alive,” said Solamipe Onifade, 16.
A vigil was held after sundown, with people holding candles and singing.
The gunmen initially seized 276 girls, but several dozen managed to escape as the captors transported them to the Sambisa Forest, with some clinging to the branches of trees from a moving open-back truck. Those still missing may have been split up. 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 was offering to exchange the girls for detained insurgents.
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 and forced to fight for Boko Haram. Those who refuse are killed.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the U.S. has helped Nigerian security forces counter the threat by Boko Haram and also helped look for the kidnapped girls.
“Unfortunately, this kind of kidnapping story is one that is becoming all too familiar in Nigeria,” Earnest said.
“We continue to be very concerned about that and we continue to be supportive of the efforts of Nigerians to counter the depraved tactics that are employed by Boko Haram,” he said. Earnest added that the U.S. is engaged in a “substantial number of operations to try to address the many needs of the Nigerian people, particularly as they try to counter the threat that’s posed by Boko Haram.”