The families of more than 230 Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by Islamist insurgents more than 10 days ago say they are fast losing hope of seeing their daughters again despite government assurances they will be found.
The mass abduction of the girls watched over by government soldiers is the most devastating in a series of recent attacks on state schools – and comes as the government debates extending a year-long state of emergency across three north-eastern states from which the militants have operated for five years. On the same day as the kidnappings, a massive bombing by Boko Haram insurgents killed more than 75 commuters hundreds of miles south on the outskirts of the capital.
The girls, who were mostly between 16 and 18 years old, were rounded up at gunpoint after militants overpowered a military guard assigned to a boarding school in Chibok, in north-eastern Borno state. They had just finished their final school exams. The school was the only one still open in the area following threats and attacks by Boko Haram, whose ideology opposes both so-called western education, and particularly women’s education.
Danuma Mpur, the chairman of the local parent-teacher association, whose two nieces are among the missing, said: “Even this morning we’ve had no update. We pinned our hopes on the government, but all that hope is turning to frustration. The town is under a veil of sorrow.”
After several attempts by unarmed parents to comb the vast forests where militant camps are located – and where near-daily air raids by the Nigerian army have been halted since the kidnappings – many said they had little faith in the government.
Hamma Balumai, a farmer whose 16-year-old daughter Hauwa was snatched, pooled his savings with other parents and ventured on a two-day trek into the forest this week. “Even my wife was begging to come as she is so disturbed she hasn’t been able to eat anything. Our daughter Hauwa is only 16 years old and she has been missing for 11 days now,” he told the Guardian.
The parents turned around only after being warned by communities in the forest that their rag-tag group, armed with machetes and knives, would be gunned down by the militants, who wield sophisticated weapons.
Parents expressed their despair after President Goodluck Jonathan convened an emergency security council on Thursday with state governors, security chiefs and spiritual leaders from across Africa’s most populous, religiously mixed country. The government said its priority was to rescue the girls, kidnapped almost two weeks ago on 14 April, amid a deteriorating security situation.
“We must do everything to ensure that the abducted children are retrieved and rehabilitated and returned to their parents, and the military assured us that they are working on it,” said Kayode Fayemi, of the southern, Christian-majority Ekiti state, following a seven-hour meeting at the presidential villa in the capital, Abuja, in which attendees also addressed fears that Boko Haram, which is seeking to carve a northern Islamic enclave, is extending its geographical reach southwards and deeper into a linchpin country in a region already plagued by Islamist militancy.
Even for around two dozen girls who escaped, there has been little respite. Godiya Usman, an 18-year-old finalist who jumped off the back of the truck, said she feels trapped by survivor’s guilt. She and her cousin huddled together as the insurgents stormed into their dorm room. “When my cousin Lami started crying, one of them pointed a gun to my head and said if she didn’t stop, he would shoot both of us. I held her and told her we had to just follow their instructions, but I was so scared I could barely even whisper the words.”
She began to panic as her cousin could not stop crying as they drove into the night. “They drove us into the forest and each time we got to a village, they stopped and started shooting and killing people and burning their houses. I told the girls in my truck that when we got to another village and they were busy attacking, we should all jump down and run into the forest.”
But the other girls, terrified by the dozens of armed men, were unable to keep to the plan. “When we got to another village, they started shooting. I jumped down and I was expecting my friends to jump too, but they didn’t. I just started crying and running into the bush,” Usman said, her voice breaking as she recounted the nightmare.
Hours later, she stumbled upon a group of other parents and local youths who were searching for the girls in the forest.
The mass abduction underlines how even the vast military might of a country that has long been a regional peacekeeping giant is failing to contain the insurgency raging in the north-east of Africa’s most populous country. Tens of thousands of civilians fleeing the vast, arid north say they are caught between the militants and brutal army reprisals.
The government said recently that nomadic herdsmen who frequently clash in cattle raids further south, in a tinderbox of ethnic tensions known as the Middle Belt, were now being infiltrated by fighters with sophisticated weapons rather than the homemade shotguns traditionally used by Fulani herders. More than 300 have been killed in such clashes in the past month.