Nightmare in the for­est The aw­ful truth in Nigeria

sweat min­gles with the tears run­ning down wor­ried faces. Un­der a scorch­ing sun, people are gath­er­ing around the gover­nor of Chi­bok, a small town in north-east­ern Nigeria.It was here, on 14 April, among these houses made of sheet metal and red dirt, that fun­da­men­tal­ist sect Boko Haram kid­napped 219 school­girls. Just be­fore mid­night, uni­formed men burst into the Chi­bok board­ing school and cap­tured the fi­nal-year stu­dents, who had stayed on for the hol­i­days to re­vise for their ex­ams. ‘My daugh­ter Sara­tou man­aged to phone us dur­ing the at­tack,’ says Ane­tou, her voice and body quiv­er­ing. ‘She told us that the other girls were in a ve­hi­cle headed to­wards the for­est. She was ter­ri­fied and asked us to pray for her.’

Sara­tou and her class­mates were due to take their fi­nal ex­ams, the equiv­a­lent of the bac­calau­réat [ma­tric], just a few days later. In this poor Nige­rian re­gion, where two thirds of girls their age can’t even read, it was to be a vic­tory in the face of a seem­ingly pre­de­ter­mined fate. Since the tragedy, Ane­tou has been tor­ment­ing her­self: what if she had been wrong to want a bet­ter life for her daugh­ter? ‘All my life, I worked hard in the fields so that she wouldn’t have to. I wanted to give her a fu­ture, and now she’s gone.’ Crushed by grief, the moth­ers of Chi­bok feel a des­per­ate com­bi­na­tion of guilt and help­less­ness. (About 10 of them, at the end of their tether, have had to be hos­pi­talised.) One mother, Saraya, says she prays to God, even in her sleep, and that she is fast­ing so that her voice may ‘reach heaven quicker’. Yana shows a big suit­case where she has

care­fully placed the be­long­ings of her stolen daugh­ter, Rifkatu. She says she avoids open­ing it, for fear of col­laps­ing. Kolo has a rit­ual: she rubs her face on her daugh­ter’s school uni­form, and the rus­tle of the fab­ric, like a magic shell, sounds like her life used to be, when her daugh­ter came back for the hol­i­days and they would rise at dawn to pray to­gether.

Since the night of the kid­nap­ping, the fam­i­lies of the miss­ing girls have been liv­ing in a state of anx­i­ety and sus­pense. And now the gover­nor, this im­por­tant, well­dressed man, has driven all the way down a long dirt road to an­nounce the im­mi­nent ar­rival – more than six weeks af­ter the raid – of a com­mit­tee from Abuja, the na­tion’s cap­i­tal. His visit has been can­celled sev­eral times for se­cu­rity rea­sons. Of­fi­cials don’t like to come to this volatile re­gion, which has been placed un­der a state of emer­gency, and where Boko Haram has been in­creas­ing its at­tacks over the past few months: more than 2 000 civil­ians killed since the be­gin­ning of 2014; dozens of vil­lages burned to the ground; thou­sands of people dis­placed. De­spite the colos­sal budget al­lo­cated to de­fence, the north of the coun­try is drown­ing in chaos. So much so that many in the re­gion won­der who prof­its by this strat­egy: ‘Soldiers de­ployed in state of emer­gency zones re­ceive a much larger pay, not to men­tion their of­fi­cers.Why would they go and risk their life in the bush to end the sit­u­a­tion?’ asks As­abé Kwab­ula, the Chi­bok high-school prin­ci­pal.

Oddly enough, while the long road that leads to the north is pep­pered with road­blocks and heav­ily armed soldiers, no se­cu­rity force is present in the small town – even though the Sam­bisa for­est, Boko Haram’s base, where the school­girls are most likely held pris­on­ers, is only a few kilo­me­tres away. The Chi­bok towns­folk have taken their se­cu­rity into their own hands – arm­ing them­selves with bows and ar­rows, sticks and old ri­fles. They have no mil­i­tary train­ing, but adorn them­selves with amulets that they be­lieve will ren­der them im­per­vi­ous to bul­lets…

Se­cu­rity in this re­gion has been prob­lem­atic for a long time, es­pe­cially for young girls. ‘We’ve been doc­u­ment­ing these kid­nap­ping cases for over a year in the coun­try’s north-east,’ re­ports Maosi Se­gun from the Hu­man Rights Watch. ‘Even though the par­ents rarely lodge a for­mal com­plaint, for fear of dis­hon­our, we know that the very few girls who man­age to es­cape, or are freed by the army, come back preg­nant or with a young child in tow.’

Se­gun ex­plains the back­ground to the con­flict. ‘It all started last May, when the wives and chil­dren of Boko Haram lead­ers were cap­tured and jailed with­out trial. As re­venge, Boko Haram kid­napped the wives of po­lice of­fi­cers. Since then, it’s been an end­less cy­cle of reprisal and re­tal­i­a­tion.’

Not for noth­ing, then, are the cur­rent ne­go­ti­a­tions fo­cus­ing on an ex­change be­tween the school­girls and a hand­ful of pris­on­ers, among whom is the wife of sect leader Abubakar Shekau. Since the broad­cast of the video in which he threat­ened to marry the girls off to his fighters, the ques­tion of rape has been on ev­ery­one’s mind.

In its war on ed­u­ca­tion, Boko Haram has al­ready won the first round

But the topic is taboo in Chi­bok. ‘We don’t talk about that here. It’s to pre­serve the dig­nity of the girls and their fam­i­lies,’ as­serts Kwab­ula, who is work­ing tire­lessly to gather a team of doc­tors and psy­chol­o­gists to care for the girls if they are freed. An op­ti­mist from ne­ces­sity, this mother of eight al­lows her­self to con­sider only a happy end­ing to the or­deal – even though she knows that noth­ing will ever be the same. How many par­ents will take the risk of send­ing their daugh­ters to school again? Since the high school was at­tacked – it was the only high school in the area – all the pri­mary and sec­ondary schools have been shut down. She cal­cu­lates quickly: if there are about 60 pupils per class and some 120 classes per school, it means al­most 15 000 pupils have seen their ed­u­ca­tion cut short. In its war on ed­u­ca­tion, Boko Haram has al­ready won the first round.

Its name lit­er­ally means ‘Western ed­u­ca­tion is a sin’ in the Haoussa lan­guage and per­fectly sums up the pro­gramme of this move­ment, founded in 2002 by a rad­i­cal imam named Mo­hamed Yousuf. Af­ter some madras­sas (Is­lamic col­leges) ac­cused of spread­ing ex­trem­ist ideas were shut down, its mem­bers re­tal­i­ated by burn­ing down more than 800 schools in the Borno state (where Chi­bok is lo­cated) and in the neigh­bour­ing Yobe state, where Abubakar Shekau comes from. Fa­tima was the head­mistress of a mid­dle school in­side Maiduguri, Borno’s cap­i­tal. Telling her story is still hard for her. She trem­bles as she de­scribes the day in May 2013, when armed men burst into her school and shot her twice in the back. Hav­ing spent 40 days in hospi­tal, a trau­ma­tised Fa­tima still wants to carry on her ‘mis­sion’. But her school, like an­other nearby, where four teach­ers were sav­agely killed, won’t re­open.

Ac­cord­ing to UNICEF, Nigeria has the high­est per­cent­age of un­schooled chil­dren in the world – 10 mil­lion, 60 per cent of whom live in the north. In

The pub­lic schools have been closed for sev­eral months be­cause of se­cu­rity con­cerns

Maiduguri, a city of some three mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, the pub­lic schools have been closed for sev­eral months be­cause of se­cu­rity con­cerns. Fam­i­lies who can af­ford it are send­ing their chil­dren to pri­vate es­tab­lish­ments pro­tected by armed guards. The oth­ers have to make do with the lo­cal re­li­gious schools where Ara­bic and the Qu­ran are al­most ex­clu­sively taught. And where girls are re­quired to wear a hi­jab. An­other vic­tory for the un­yield­ing en­e­mies of non-re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion…

The Chi­bok kid­nap­ping has also high­lighted other dire con­di­tions in the north – lo­cal au­thor­i­ties have, for ex­am­ple, long ne­glected the sup­ply of se­cu­rity, wa­ter and elec­tric­ity as well as ac­cess to health­care and ed­u­ca­tion. This hid­den side of the Nige­rian re­al­ity is very dif­fer­ent to the of­fi­cial suc­cess story of the coun­try, which has be­come the leading econ­omy of the African con­ti­nent. The cap­i­tal’s elite have been us­ing the tragedy to rally pub­lic opin­ion against Pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, which they ac­cuse of do­ing noth­ing to save the school­girls and in­stead do­ing ev­ery­thing it can to sup­press the ‘Bring Back our Girls’ move­ment, which

has been widely pub­li­cised on so­cial net­works every­where. Back­wa­ter Chi­bok has sud­denly be­come the fo­cus of in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion. Its in­hab­i­tants don’t have TV, but they have heard of the global push to free their daugh­ters. They give thanks, but won­der why, if all these im­por­tant people are look­ing into it, are they still with­out news?

Af­ter wait­ing for hours, the Chi­bok towns­folk watch a he­li­copter land among the ru­ins of the school, with the Abuja com­mit­tee on board. Some 40 min­utes later, it leaves again.

‘They swore they would get our daugh­ters back. They promised, but they didn’t say when,’ re­ports one fa­ther. The gover­nor’s SUV storms away to Maiduguri, with three sil­hou­ettes hud­dling in the back. Dina, Kumé and Awa are among the 50-odd school­girls who man­aged to es­cape the kid­nap­pers on the night of the raid. Kumé was the first to jump out of the truck that was tak­ing them to the bush. She says it wasn’t courage but a cool-headed de­ci­sion: ‘I would rather have died than find my­self in their hands.’

To­day, the Chi­bok es­capees go to a heav­ily guarded school in Maiduguri to take their ex­ams. They talk about their fu­ture, want­ing to be­come lawyers, doc­tors or soldiers. But they know that when they get their re­sults, they won’t have the heart to cel­e­brate. For, in the for­est, their other class­mates will never get to grad­u­ate.

They won­der why, if all these im­por­tant people are look­ing into it, are they still with­out news?

Top row, left to right Moda, one of the school­girls kid­napped on 14 April in Nigeria; pub­lic schools in Maiduguri have closed, so girls have to at­tend Is­lamic re­li­gious schools; Naomi, mother of one of the ab­ductees; girls in class. Sec­ond row, left to right Strict Is­lamic ed­u­ca­tion; Mainok vil­lage af­ter a Boko Haram at­tack. Bot­tom row, left to right Se­cu­rity on the road to Chi­bok; a ru­ral road­block; a young vig­i­lante guards the en­trance to Maiduguri.

Top row, left to right A photo of ab­ductee Rifkatu when she was a child; se­cu­rity check points on the Chi­bok

road; the few girls who es­caped pre­pare for their ex­ams un­der

guard; the road to Chi­bok looks de­cep­tively calm; Sara­tou, who was

also kid­napped. Sec­ond row, left to right A vig­i­lante on guard;

prayers for the girls’ re­turn; vig­i­lantes carry spears and shot­guns. Bot­tom Moth­ers of the

girls gather in Chi­bok.

Top row, left to right Mar­garet, kid­napped on 14 April; Salome’s

mother waits for news; meet­ing the Abuja del­e­ga­tion;

Naomi, an­other ab­ducted school­girl. Sec­ond row, left to right

Vig­i­lantes place their faith in charms as well as

guns; ed­u­ca­tion ba­sics in Maiduguri;

learn­ing at a re­li­gious school;Yana

keeps vigil in her daugh­ter’s bed­room.

Naomi’s mother

Kolo and sis­ter Martha; a ‘Bring

Back our Girls’ protest in Abuja. Bot­tom row, left to right

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