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Majority Of Rescued Boko Haram Captives Are Children

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

They endured months of captivity held by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram in Nigeria. Now hundreds of women and children have been freed after the Nigerian military pushed into the rebel stronghold. On Saturday, 275 of those rescued were brought to a refugee camp in the city of Yola. Kiryn Lanning has been helping them. She's a child protection coordinator with the International Rescue Committee.

KIRYN LANNING: Of the 275, I think there's been a lot of attention on the women. But I do want to highlight that's only 68 of them were women. The majority of them were children. So about 75 percent of the population is children that came in.

BLOCK: And how old are those children?

LANNING: Well, about 116 of them are below the age of 5. And then the rest are between the ages of 6 and 17. But there's a large majority of them that are 0 to 5.

BLOCK: What can you tell us about the condition first of the children whom you've been helping?

LANNING: Well, many of the children, when they first came in, were exhausted. And many of them were also malnourished and dehydrated, so priority right now is making sure that they get the care and support that they need and those that require medical attention are given that attention urgently.

BLOCK: And the women - what kind of shape are they in?

LANNING: Similar. They've been receiving a lot of support in the past couple of days, and we're starting to see that they're taking their first steps towards recovery.

BLOCK: And how long had this group been held hostage?

LANNING: It's varied. Some, I believe, we have some reports of 11 months. Others we're hearing have been held for five months.

BLOCK: There's been a lot of concern, of course, about the women who've been held hostage being used as sex slaves forced into marriage, being raped at the hands of Boko Haram. Did anybody talk to you about that?

LANNING: No. Our approach to working with survivors or women generally, and specifically populations like this that are very sensitive to, you know, abductees, is to kind of approach it slowly. So when people are ready to discuss what they've experienced, then we have staff available to them that can kind of walk through that experience with them or to counsel them - that they get the support they need when they're ready to speak about it.

BLOCK: Are some of the women at the refugee camp pregnant and in a timeframe that would indicate that they had become pregnant at - when they were held hostage?

LANNING: The official number that we have is six women that were pregnant.

BLOCK: I read, Ms. Lanning, that there - a lot of the kids who were held hostage who are at the camp - I think it over 60 of them who've been separated from their parents. What do you do about those kids, and how do you help them try to find their parents if in fact they're still alive?

LANNING: It's a complicated process of documenting the child's information and then also trying to document as much information about where they came from or their parents and then through many different channels trying to locate them.

BLOCK: Are you especially worried about that group on top of everything else that they've been through?

LANNING: Of course. Unaccompanied children are some of the most vulnerable children that we see in emergencies, both in the short term because they can be more susceptible to violence, exploitation, abuse or neglect, but then also in the the longer term, making sure that they get a stable home environment and that they get the care that they need.

BLOCK: Are you hopeful that these children may find at least one of their parents?

LANNING: Yeah. It's complicated, but I can tell you yesterday in the - I guess it was today - this morning, I saw one mother who did find her child. And they had a moment of, you know, recognition and kind of hugging each other. It was a very emotional experience, but it happens. So there's a lot of hope that we can create this connection.

BLOCK: That the Kiryn Lanning. She's the child protection coordinator with the International Rescue Committee's emergency response team. She's in Yola, Nigeria. Thanks so much.

LANNING: Yes. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.