May 13, 2014 3:30:20 am
The girls in the school dorm heard the sound of gunshots from a nearby town. So when armed men in uniforms burst in and promised to rescue them, at first they were relieved.
“Don’t worry, we’re soldiers,” one 16-year-old girl recalls them saying. “Nothing is going to happen to you.”
The gunmen commanded the hundreds of students at the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School to gather outside. The men went into a storeroom and removed all the food. Then they set fire to the room.
“They started shouting Allahu Akbar,” the 16-year-old student said. “And we knew.”
That the men were not government soldiers at all. They were members of the ruthless Islamic extremist group called Boko Haram. They kidnapped the entire group of girls and drove them away into the dense forest.
Nearly a month later, 276 girls are still missing. At least two have died of snakebite, and about 20 others are ill, according to an intermediary who is in touch with their captors.
On May 5 night, 11 girls more were kidnapped in the villages of Warabe and Wala in northeastern Borno state. A resident said the girls, ages 12 to 15, were dragged into the forest.
The 16-year-old was among 50 students who escaped the kidnappings on that fateful night of April 14-15, and she spoke for the first time in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. The AP also interviewed about 30 others, including officials, relatives of the missing girls, civil society leaders in northeast Nigeria and soldiers in the war zone.
The Chibok girls’ school, an academy for both Muslim and Christians, is in the remote and sparsely populated northeast region of Nigeria. Like all schools in Borno state, it had been closed because of deadly attacks by Boko Haram. But it had reopened to allow final-year students to take exams.
At about 11 pm on April 14, a local government official, Bana Lawal, received a warning. He was told that about 200 heavily armed militants were headed towards his town.
Lawal alerted the 15 soldiers guarding Chibok. Then he roused sleeping residents and told them to flee into the bush and the nearby hills. The soldiers sent an SOS to the nearest barracks, an hour’s drive on a dirt road.
No help arrived.
When the militants showed up two hours after the warning, the soldiers fought valiantly, Lawal said. Outnumbered and outgunned, they held off the insurgents for an hour and a half. One was killed.
As dawn approached, the extremists headed for the boarding school.
There were too many gunmen to count, said the girl who escaped. So, they obediently sat in the dirt. The men set the school ablaze and herded the girls onto three pickup trucks.
The trucks drove through three villages, but then the car of fighters following them broke down. That’s when the girl and her friend jumped out.
Others argued, the 16-year-old remembered. But one student said, “We should go! They can shoot me if they want but I don’t know what they are going to do with me otherwise.”
As they jumped, the car behind started up. Its lights came on. The girls did not know if the fighters could see them, so they ran into the bush and hid.
“We ran and ran, so fast,” said the girl, who has always prided herself on running faster than her six brothers. “That is how I saved myself.”
A few other girls clung to low-hanging branches and waited until the vehicles had passed. A man on a bicycle came across them and accompanied them back home.
“I’m the only girl in my family. Everyone was so happy,” the girl said.
The day after, the Defence Ministry put out a statement quoting the school principal, saying soldiers had rescued all but eight of the girls. The principal denied it.
The residents of Chibok then pooled their money and headed into the Sambisa Forest on motorcycles, armed only with bows and arrows. The forest sprawls over more than 59,570 sq km, and is known to shelter extremist hideouts.
Mutah Buba joined in hoping to find his two sisters and two nieces. They got directions from villagers along the way. Finally, an old man warned them that they were close to the camp, but that they and their daughters could be killed if they confronted the militants.
The searchers returned to Chibok and appealed to the few soldiers there to accompany them. They refused, Buba said. Parents in Chibok ask why they came within a couple of miles of their daughters, yet the military did not.
Through sobs and jagged gasps for air, the mother of a missing 15-year-old said she had lost confidence in the authorities. “The government of Nigeria did not take care of our children and does not now care about our children,” said the mother.
She wondered what would happen to her daughter’s lofty ambition to become a doctor. The girl spent her time caring for the family, and would cook whatever her mother wanted to eat.
“She is my first-born, the best,” said the mother, breaking into a scream followed by wails of sorrow. “What am I to do as a mother?”
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