WHEN BOKO HARAM KIDNAPPED 219 NIGERIAN SCHOOLGIRLS EARLIER THIS YEAR, THE DARKER SIDE OF THE NIGERIAN REALITY WAS BRUTALLY EXPOSED
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.
Kolo and sister Martha; a ‘Bring
Back our Girls’ protest in Abuja. Bottom row, left to right