Miss­ing chil­dren leave hole in Nige­rian city

As Damasak re­cov­ers from Is­lamic ex­trem­ists, the depth of the hor­ror that Boko Haram wrought can be felt


Con­struc­tion work­ers are paint­ing over the Boko Haram graf­fiti. Ply­wood frames are ris­ing in the place of homes de­stroyed by grenades and bombs. Thou­sands of refugees are re­turn­ing. On the sur­face, this city once oc­cu­pied by Is­lamist ex­trem­ists is slowly re­turn­ing to nor­mal.

Ex­cept for one hor­ri­fy­ing fact: Hun­dreds of chil­dren are miss­ing.

Most of them were seized by Boko Haram in the fall of 2014. Months ear­lier, in April, the mil­i­tants had car­ried off 276 school­girls from the town of Chi­bok, a kid­nap­ping that be­came the sub­ject of a global cam­paign known by the hash­tag #BringBack­OurGirls. But there has been lit­tle attention to the lost chil­dren of Damasak. Res­i­dents say they to­tal more than 500. All but a hand­ful are still un­ac­counted for.

In the ru­ins of the city, every­one seems to be miss­ing a son or a daugh­ter, a brother or a sis­ter. Out­side the mud walls of his roof­less house, Aji Bakar holds a pic­ture of his chubby-cheeked 9year-old grand­son, who was kid­napped from his class­room in Septem­ber 2014.

“Our se­na­tors and gover­nors are neg­li­gent,” he said. “Why can’t they find him?”

Fa­tima Kyari sits down next to Bakar. Her son, too, is miss­ing.

“When Boko Haram fled from Damasak, they took him,” she says an­grily.

Hear­ing that jour­nal­ists are ask­ing about the city’s van­ished chil­dren, more people join the cir­cle, un­der the half shade of a thorny tree.

Yusuf Aisami lost his 12-yearold brother. Umara Yakami lost his 10-year-old son.

Some de­tails about the mass kid­nap­pings had trick­led out in the months af­ter they oc­curred. Hu­man Rights Watch had re­ported in 2015 that at least 300 ele­men­tary school stu­dents had been seized in Damasak on Nov. 24, 2014, in what it called “the largest doc­u­mented school ab­duc­tion by Boko Haram mil­i­tants.”

Many of the chil­dren had been held at the school by Boko Haram un­til March 2015, when a multi­na­tional mil­i­tary force con­verged on Damasak, part of a ma­jor of­fen­sive to de­feat the guer­ril­las. The in­sur­gents fled with the chil­dren — the last time they were seen.

Two years later, many res­i­dents have now re­turned from years liv­ing as refugees in neigh­bor­ing Niger. Oth­ers had fled to re­mote vil­lages in Nige­ria. Some, like Bakar, spent time in the forest, liv­ing off wild fruit and run­ning each time they heard Boko Haram fight­ers.

The res­i­dents have come back to find their houses burned and their shops looted. The Nige­rian govern­ment, buoyed by a large in­ter­na­tional as­sis­tance pack­age, has vowed to re­store nor­malcy. But the least nor­mal thing about Damasak — its hun­dreds of miss­ing chil­dren — re­mains un­re­solved.

“For now, we haven’t re­ceived any in­for­ma­tion about where they are, or if they are still alive,” said Maj. Mo­hammed Kaigama, the deputy mil­i­tary com­man­der in the city.

Res­i­dents have sub­mit­ted the names of more than 500 miss­ing chil­dren to lo­cal author­i­ties, but the fam­i­lies have re­ceived dif­fer­ent ver­sions of that dis­ap­point­ing re­sponse.

“Af­ter two years, par­ents of the miss­ing chil­dren are des­per­ate for in­for­ma­tion, but have re­ceived lit­tle more than ru­mors,” Hu­man Rights Watch said in a re­cent state­ment.

Mean­while, the Chi­bok girls have been the fo­cus of pro­tracted ne­go­ti­a­tions, in­clud­ing a deal me­di­ated by the Swiss govern­ment that led to the re­lease of 21 of the stu­dents in October. Pres­i­dent Muham­madu Buhari has pledged again and again to free the rest.

“We re­ally won­der about it — why those girls but not our chil­dren?” Bakar asked.

Thou­sands of other Nige­ri­ans went miss­ing over the past decade, as Boko Haram gained strength and ter­ri­tory across Nige­ria’s north­east, par­tic­u­larly in the state of Borno, which is about the size of Bel­gium. Many of the kid­napped girls and women were forced into mar­riage with the fight­ers. Other young women mys­te­ri­ously reap­peared as sui­cide bombers years later. The boys some­times be­came child sol­diers. The men were of­ten killed im­me­di­ately.

It’s only now, when cities such as Damasak are be­ing re­stored, their res­i­dents pour­ing back, that the scale of Boko Haram’s rav­ages are be­com­ing known, as people be­gin to tab­u­late the miss­ing. Tues­day was the first time for­eign jour­nal­ists had vis­ited the city of 105,000 people in at least two years.

It of­fered a glimpse of the sur­real af­ter­life of Boko Haram’s oc­cu­pa­tion. A young boy, seem­ingly with­out rel­a­tives, stood pet­ting a horse sur­rounded by dec­i­mated houses. A girl, no older than 10, had drawn a manic cityscape with a piece of char­coal on the wall of an aban­doned build­ing. When a man took a step to­ward her, she shud­dered.

But the miss­ing were Damasak’s most dystopian fea­ture. Fam­i­lies were re­mov­ing the ashes and rub­ble from their homes, but there were now empty rooms, where chil­dren once slept. Many had gone to Zanna Mo­barti Pri­mary School. Oth­ers were study­ing the Ko­ran in reli­gious schools when they were ab­ducted. Some ex­tended fam­i­lies lost more than a dozen chil­dren.

Bakar pointed to a place next to a mud wall that once was home to his grand­son, Ajimi Dala.

“We don’t know if we’ll see him again,” he said.


Above, from left, Aji Bakar, 65, Yusuf Aisami, 30, Fa­tima Kyari, 40, and Umara Yakami, 35, speak about their young male fam­ily mem­bers who were kid­napped by Boko Haram in Damasak, Nige­ria. At top, chil­dren walk past a de­stroyed home in the city.

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