Suspected militants of the radical group Boko Haram stormed the northeastern Nigerian village of Dapchi two weeks ago and made away with 110 schoolgirls. Linus Unah travelled to the village to capture the general mood, listen to residents recount firsthand details of the mass abduction, and speak with families of the missing schoolgirls.
Around 6.30 p.m. on February 19, Fatima Auwal ambled to the kitchen to collect rice and beans for dinner without any premonition. At the kitchen in Government Girls Science and Technical College in Dapchi in northeastern Nigeria’s Yobe state, other schoolgirls crowded into the run-down hall with their plates.
Just after Ms. Auwal got her share of dinner, she began to hear sporadic gunshots. At first, she felt it was nothing to worry about. But then it got louder and louder, drawing closer to her boarding school with each shot.
This is the first time suspected militants from the radical group Boko Haram stormed Daphi, a quiet farming village 100km from Damaturu, the capital city of Yobe. Residents say the fighters, who were clothed in military camouflage and turbans, came with pickup trucks and started shooting “any how”.
“At first, we were happy that soldiers were here to help us, but when I saw some of them on slippers and some without shoes, I knew they weren’t soldiers,” Adam Muhammed Kontoma, who was praying at a roadside mosque when the militants struck, said.
Mr. Kontoma recalls that the fighters told them “we didn’t come to hurt any of you”, but kept seizing up passersby and asking them “where is the girl’s school”. One passerby took them to the central primary school near the district head’s home, but the militants kept shooting and threatening to kill him if he didn’t show them the school, he added.
After all the deliberate misdirection, the militants found the school. Soon, a pickup truck packed with fighters began to direct others towards the same direction.
“There were a lot of phone calls and they were telling each other that they’ve found the school,” Kontoma, a farmer in the village, said.
Once in the school, fighters came to the staff quarters but discovered there were no girls, so they drove to the main gate housing the dormitories and classrooms, teachers who spoke to Ripples Nigeria recalled.
They began to shoot intermittently, and this created an atmosphere of panic.
“Some girls were running towards the gate, while others were running to every end of the school: east, west, north, just everywhere without thinking,” Auwal, an SS1 student of the school, told Ripples Nigeria.
The trucks were parked outside the school. Hearing the militants say “we are the army”, “we are not here to hurt you”, and “we are here to rescue you, enter our cars”, — most of them “entered voluntarily”, while the fighters forcefully dragged others into their vans, teachers and security guards say.
Hundreds of others jumped over the perimeter fence and darted into the surrounding bush.
The school only had four security guards, mostly middle-aged men with nothing but transistor radio sets and slingshots.
Twelve-year-old Auwal escaped with a group of 30 students. Sule Dogo, who cleans the kitchen and maintains the store in the school, led them and instructed them to “follow me and do whatever I do”. They skulked through the bush and sometimes had to crouch in the grass whenever they saw either headlights or torchlight.
“The militants were everywhere even in the bush,” 48-year-old Dogo, who is affectionately called ‘uncle brother’ by the schoolgirls, said in Hausa, the lingua franca of northern Nigeria.
“Sometimes we lie on the grass for up to an hour and try not to let our figures appear in the moonlight.”
After more than three hours of moving by stealth, of scrunching down in the grass, of avoiding moonlighted paths and of Dogo piggybacking a schoolgirl who was tired and said to leave her there – the group manoeuvred their way back to the village around 11 p.m. and slept at the home of Dogo’s friend, who gave them food, water and a mat to sleep.
Auwal said “only 10 girls” returned to the village.
“Some ran to other directions whenever we saw them [militants] and some girls even stayed back in the bush,” she said.
Back home, Auwal’s parents – who live a few metres away from the school – could neither eat nor sleep. They didn’t know about her whereabouts and neither did they know what had happened to other schoolgirls, some of whom were daughters of neighbours.
Her mother, father and five siblings huddled in a corner of their room and prayed for her safety. Even from the room, they could hear the schoolgirls screaming and hollering across the school compound.
“We kept hearing the girls shouting ‘help us’ repeatedly,” Hajja-Fati Bukar, the mother of Auwal, said.
“I was shouting, praying, crying, jumping and wanting to fall on the ground and collapse but my husband and some neighbours who slept here that night kept holding me,” Mrs. Bukar, said with a solemn face.
That night, only the children slept. Everybody waited, with bated breath, for the day to dawn, 30-year-old Bukar said.
“We looked forward to the next morning, we just wanted to rush to the school and see for ourselves,” she added.
Just after dawn, parents and teachers and young villagers thronged to the school. Dogo, Auwal and nine other girls hurried to the premises, too, as did some teachers with girls they found in the bush.
In the wake of a quick assessment, it became clear that some girls were “missing”, some teachers said in a group interview at the staff quarters.
Missing – that word which comes with neither blame nor responsibility – made it difficult to establish how many girls were not there.
Some girls returned from the bush, teachers and villagers say, but “many” were still missing in this all-girls school with about 926 students.
Auwal Grema, the father of Fatima Auwal, rushed to the school, too. He saw his daughter, and felt a quick gush of relief. But for many parents whose children were missing, outrage and grief gripped their breath.
Neither the federal government nor the Yobe state government said anything on February 20. Silence hovered around the village like the military jet that patrolled the skies in the immediate aftermath of the raid.
Parents were left to speculate and listen to “painful” rumours, says Kontoma, the Dapchi farmer, his eyes covered with dark sunglasses. He started wearing glasses to “hide my tears” in order “to give my wife and children hope and strength”.
Men, after all, are expected to abhor overt displays of emotion and to rein in tears as a sign of masculinity.
“We stayed in the school until 5:45 p.m. and they told us we have to leave because the school would be closed,” Kontoma, a father of three, said.
Teachers and residents continued to search for girls.
And before the end of Tuesday, February 20, the police issued a statement — the first official statement in the wake of the kidnapping. Yobe police commissioner Abdulmaliki Sumonu said there were no abductions of schoolgirls in the village.
On Wednesday, February 21, Yobe state commissioner of education Mohammed Lamin told local journalists that 48 out of 94 students declared missing had returned.
The police immediately disagreed with Lamin’s assessment. Yobe police chief Sumonu said that 111 girls were “unaccounted for” and reiterated his earlier view that no girls were taken away by suspected Boko Haram fighters: “I asked the school’s principal if there were abductions or deaths in the school and she said no.”
The same day, Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed said President Muhammadu Buhari had asked him alongside the Minister of Defence, Monsur Dan-Ali and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Geoffrey Onyeama, to visit the school on fact-finding mission.
But Abdullahi Bego spokesman for Yobe governor Ibrahim Gaidam didn’t let the show stop there that day. Bego released a statement saying “gallant officers and men of the Nigerian army” had rescued some of the schoolgirls from the militants. The army said it couldn’t confirm this.
Parents in Dapchi who heard Mr. Bego’s statement on BBC Hausa service and read it on Whatsapp, said it lifted their spirits.
“We were so happy that we could not sleep that night,” said Kontoma, whose 15-year-old daughter Mariam is missing.
Around noon on February 22, Governor Gaidam arrived well ahead of Monsur Dan-Ali’s delegation and went straight to see the district head. The parents of the missing girls crowded at the front of the district head’s palace, awaiting the “good” news.
Then the governor came out and addressed them. He said none of the girls had been rescued and added that he was not sure “whether our children were abducted”, says Mr. Kontoma.
“People became angry and irate. Some parents were falling and rolling on the ground, some were crying loudly, some were fainting, and in the end – angry youths pelted stones at the governor’s convoy as he left,” he narrated.
Spokesman Abdullahi Bego knew it was time to get to work again. In another statement released in the wake of the governor’s visit, the government apologised for announcing that some girls had been rescued. It said the misleading information was from a security agency that “we had no reason to doubt”.
Security consultant Kabir Adamu feels the government has missed a chance to build “confidence and resilience” among the parents.
“The importance of crisis management is the difference between you coming out of a bad situation strong and you collapsing after a bad situation,” says Adamu, the managing director of Sahel-focused security risk and intelligence consulting company, Beacon Consulting.
“You have a chance to either gain or lose confidence. If the information you provide is accurate or at least you indicate some level of reassurance then you would have gained the confidence of the concern community, including the parents, the generality of Nigerians, and the media.”
Kontoma said he would “never forget the disappointment” that came with the governor’s statement.
“Governor Gaidam is the chief security officer of our state so we expected him to give us hope that our girls would be rescued. If he had said we should assist with prayers we wouldn’t be thinking too much like we do now,” he added.
On February 23, President Buhari describes the abduction as “a national disaster” and said he would send more troops and surveillance aircraft to search for the missing girls.
Two days after Buhari’s statement, the federal government confirmed that 110 students were “unaccounted for”. Then a week after the incident, the federal government provided a comprehensive list containing the names, classes and ages of the missing girls who ranged between 11 to 19 years.
The federal government has also set up a 12-member committee, which is expected to submit a report by March 15, to probe circumstances surrounding the abduction of schoolgirls in Dapchi.
Buckets, plastic cups, stainless spoons, exercise books, sandals, flip-flops and school uniforms litter the dormitories and the school ground – a testament to the bedlam that followed the intermittent shooting and abductions.
For Fatima Auwal, the pains are still fresh. “I am deeply sad; it hurts me because four of my friends who I play with in school are missing.”
The silence, delayed response, denials, and rumours are similar to the abduction of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok in April 2014.
It took former President Goodluck Jonathan more than two weeks to admit that it happened thanks in large measure to international pressure and clamour for the return of the girls. At least more than 100 Chibok girls remain in captivity after the government entered negotiations to secure the release of a little above 100 girls.
The striking parallels between the Chibok episode and that of Dapchi are that both abductions happened a year before the elections, and the militants came in military camouflage, caused panic, and then pretended they were there to help the confused schoolgirls.
Security analyst Adamu believes Nigeria is dealing with “another Chibok scenario” but quickly adds that what is “more compelling” about the latest episode is that Boko Haram is under pressure.
“Their funding avenues have been blocked, so they are looking for ways to generate revenue, and this [abduction] is one of the easiest ways to do that,” he explained.
Analysts believe that Boko Haram’s abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls was part of the defining moments that led to Jonathan’s defeat to Buhari in 2015.
Adamu, who has over 27 years experience in security and intelligence, argues that Boko Haram’s latest kidnapping of schoolgirls would “definitely have an impact” on the next election, but feels the Buhari government could turn the narrative if it takes “critical steps” to address this problem. The President has not said if he would be contesting for the elections next year.
No group has claimed responsibility for the missing girls. This could be a tactic to wait for “maximum effect”, the security and intelligence executive said.
“They are very happy with the current situation [because] the media is covering it extensively so that puts pressure on the government,” he said.
Though negotiations to secure the release of the girls comes as a handy measure, Adamu said it would not be a “quick process” if the schoolgirls in Dapchi were taken by Abu Musab al-Barnawi’s faction.
“But if it is Boko Haram they will likely release a video very soon and state their demand,” the head of Beacon Consulting said.
Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi is leader of a splinter group from Boko Haram. His group kidnapped three lecturers of the University of Maiduguri in July 2017. They were released alongside 10 women last month after a series of negotiations with the faction.
Last Friday, human rights activist Aisha Wakil claimed that the Al-Banarwi faction contacted her to confirm they were in possession of the Dapchi schoolgirls.
“I can assure Nigerians that so far they are with my son, Habib (Abu Musab Al-Barnawi), and his friends,” Wakil, largely known as ‘Mama Boko Haram’ due to her ties with the group, told the News Agency of Nigeria in Maiduguri.
“Habib is a nice guy; he is a very nice boy. He will not harm them; he will not touch them; and he will not kill them.”
She said the militants would “definitely give us the girls” and urged Nigerians to “calm down, be prayerful, everything will be over.”
The federal government claims Boko Haram has been “defeated” but the radical militant group still remains a threat, says Adamu, whose work covers Nigeria and the Sahel region.
“It is a wrong use of word to say they have been defeated,” he argued. “We have to accept the fact that this is an ideologically inspired group so no matter the kind of force you use on them as long as you do not take steps to defeat their ideology itself then using that term ‘defeat’ is honestly a wish.”
The radical Islamist group has continued to carry out deadly suicide bombings in crowded places as well as raids in far-flung communities. The insurgency has killed more than 20,000 people and forced 2.1 million to flee their homes. Yobe is one of the most affected states alongside Borno and Adamawa.
In Dapchi, where mud huts dot the landscape, the grief is palpable. Parents whose girls are missing stay indoors to receive visitors who trickle in to console them. Only the rustling of neem leaves, the whir of cars on the main road and the low-frequency booming of yellow tricycles disrupt the quietness that engulfs the village.
Occasionally, cows with stick slung on their necks haul children in wooden trucks packed with either gallons of water or logs of firewood.
Villagers discuss the disappearance of the schoolgirls in small groups, in the front of a roadside mosque, and even in storefronts.
Deri Kadau stood at the outer doorway of his mud-brick home, welcoming dozens of residents who say “sorry” and “how are you keeping up” in Hausa, before they go into his house.
Two of his daughters – Aisha and Hafsat – were students at the all-girls boarding school in Dapchi. Fourteen-year-old Aisha is still missing, but her sister Hafsat, 13, escaped and is home.
“I can’t even sleep in this condition because whenever I think of Aisha it pains me a lot,” Mr. Kadau, a staff with the local government, said.
Though he was also grieving, farmer Kontoma came to see Kadua, 56. He chatted about the invitation of some parents to the state capital by security officials, before turning to a passerby to ask him why a group of men were gathering at the front of a mud hut a few kilometres away.
“How can the government beat us and tell us not to cry,” he told Kadua, who listened without saying anything. “We are not fighting with the government; we only want to see our daughters.”
Goni Ali, a student at Federal Polytechnic Bauchi, joined the two men at Kadua’s home. Ali’s younger sister, Zara’u Modu, has not returned home since February 19. He said the villagers were worried about the “lack of serious action” from the government to rescue “our sisters”.
It is common to hear residents say “our daughters” or “our sisters” here — a pointer to the shared sense of loss.
Residents in Dapchi continue to blame the attack on the withdrawal of troops stationed in the village for “unknown reasons”.
“We used to collaborate with the soldiers until they left three weeks ago or thereabouts,” Bashir Manzo, the chairman of a support group for parents of missing schoolgirls in Dapchi, said.
“As poor people we had no power to question the removal of soldiers here.” Mr. Manzo’s daughter – Fatima, 12, is also missing.
Governor Ibrahim Gaidam also echoed similar sentiments when he said the withdrawal of security officials from Dapchi and other communities could have triggered the latest attack.
“I blame the whole attack on Dapchi on the military and the defence headquarters who withdrew troops from Dapchi. The attack occurred barely a week after the military withdrew the soldiers from there,” Gaidam told journalists in Damaturu on February 24.
On Monday of last week, in what appeared to be a public verbal brawl, the Nigerian army and police disagreed over who should have protected Dapchi before the mass abduction.
The Army said in a statement that they withdraw from the town because troops were needed at Kanama, on the Nigeria-Niger Republic border. It added that Dapchi has been “”relatively calm and peaceful” and it “formally” handed over to the police.
The police rejected these claims. Yobe State Commissioner of Police, Sumonu Abdulmaliki, said the military did not “informed the police of its withdrawal or handed over its locations in Dapchi” to them.
The blame game has not helped either side find the missing children.
Following the abduction of the Chibok girls, the Safe Schools Initiative was touted as a solution to the growing attacks on schools in the region. The initiative, which started with 500 schools, was aimed at creating safe learning environments to promote the safety of students, family members and teachers.
With an initial funding of $10 million from a group of Nigerian business leaders, UN special envoy for education and former British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown launched the programme at the World Economic Forum on Africa held in Abuja in May 2014.
This programme, which also attracted an additional $10 million from the Nigerian government and backing from the United Kingdom, United States, and Germany, focused on improving security infrastructure at schools and establishing community-orientated security interventions.
It also made alternative arrangements for the transfer of at-risk students to safe areas and provides education for internally displaced persons in camps and communities.
Analysts say the initiative has not made much difference in the war-torn region, citing a combination of inadequate security system involving teachers, students, local communities and other stakeholders such as the police but also a lack of rapid response system and communication tools.
Boko Haram, which loosely means ‘western education is a sin’, has repeatedly attacked schools and teachers since the insurgency began in 2009. As of September last year, Unicef estimates that Boko Haram has destroyed about 1,400 schools and killed 2,295 teachers and displaced a further 19,000.
Some parents who spoke to Ripples Nigeria in Dapchi said that they might stop sending their children to school if security does not improve.
Humanitarian and development worker Jamila Haruna sees a correlation between abductions and poor enrolment in the region, particularly for girls.
“Parents would rather have their kids home tending to menial jobs or go hawking than to send them to unsafe environment,” Ms. Haruna told Ripples Nigeria.
She said this could counter efforts to promote girl-child education in northern Nigeria, where parents were already overcoming “cultural and religious narratives” to send their daughters to school.
Her worries are not far-fetched. Child marriage is more common in northern Nigeria, with up to three out of four girls (76%) marrying before their 18th birthday, according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) .
Research from the UK charity Save the Children showed that women find it hard to return to the classroom after marriage. The 2016 study entitled “Every Last Child” found that 82% of women (aged 20 to 24) who married at 18 had no education and only 13% had finished secondary education.
Outside his mud-brick home, Deri Kadau kept greeting and thanking villagers who came to see how his family has fared since their daughter, Aisha, was abducted. Those who knew Mr Kontoma also comforted him, sometimes a pat on the back and mostly words that suggest he should be strong amid difficulties.
An elderly man dressed in white traditional robe and hat walked up to him and asked him if his daughter – Mariam was “truly” missing. There was shock and disbelief in his tone.
Kontoma told him his wife has “refused to eat” and that his children kept asking him where their older sister was.
“I lie to them, and sometimes have to drop wads of naira notes on the mat to encourage them to eat,” he told the man.
“But we all miss Mariam,” he said, removing his glasses.
“When she was here she washed all the clothes, cleaned the house, helped her mother in the house and played with the other children.”
And saying this, Kontoma lowered his head and began to sob.
***This investigative project by Ripples Nigeria was conducted in partnership with the Ripples Centre for Data and Investigative Journalism.
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