Two years after the largest documented schoolchildren abduction by Boko Haram militants occurred in the northeastern Nigeria town of Damasak, hundreds of schoolchildren are still missing. While the government keeps quiet, families grief for their kidnapped children.
By Philip Obaji Jr.
Borom Mohammed’s four sons: Audu, Babagana, Mustapha and Bulama were all kidnapped from their Islamic school by Boko Haram militants in March 2015 in the north-eastern town of Damasak in Borno State. That same day, her husband, Mallam Goni, was also seized by the insurgents when they stormed her compound. She and her three little daughters escaped.
It’s been over a year since that fateful day in which Boko Haram militants kidnapped hundreds of school children in Damasak, and Borom still hasn’t gotten over the incident.
I was ready to visit her home in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital where she now resides after fleeing Damasak, for an interview, but her close friends told me it would be impossible to get her to talk to me, as she hasn’t been in a good state of mind since her husband and sons were taken away by the militants.
“She cries each time she sees young people around her,” said Bukkar Hassan, her neighbor in Damasak, whose two female cousins were also kidnapped by Boko Haram on the same day as Borom’s sons and husband. “Young people remind her of her missing boys.”
It’s now nearly two years since Borom’s sons and husband were seized by the militants, and there have been no words from their captors concerning their whereabout, and no comment from the government regarding the issue.
On the day they were kidnapped, Boko Haram militants seized hundreds of other school children in Damasak, according to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released in March 2016.
HRW said the militants occupied Zanna Mobarti Primary School in Damasak in November 2014 after taking control of the town. At least 300 students were in the building, and in the months that followed, the insurgents forced the captured children to learn the Koran as it banned teaching in English. When coalition forces from Chad and Niger closed in on Damasak in March 2015, the jihadists fled the town, taking along the 300 schoolchildren and an additional 100 women and children whom they had captured and held captive.
But as they left Damasak, students who attended the Mohammed Goni Primary School and the Al Manil Islamic School where Borom’s children received their education where also forcefully taken along, according to Hassan, whose cousins; Umrama, 8, and Yachalu, 13, attended the former.
13-year-old Yachalu (left) and her 8-year-old sister, Umrama (right) were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants on their way home from school; Ali Modu, the elder brother of the victims, gave their photos to Philip Obaji Jr.
“They were captured on their way back from school,” Hassan, who now lives in Maiduguri, said of his cousins. “Up till this moment, no one has heard anything about them.”
Students who attended the Government Secondary School (GSS), Damasak, were also kidnapped by Boko Haram on that same day, but not while in school, rather, at their homes, according to staff of GSS who spoke to The Daily Beast. The school had closed for the session at the time of the invasion.
Mallam Abubakar, a school teacher at GSS, said the insurgents did storm the school on that day with the hope of abducting school children, but they found just a few teachers including him in the building. Luckily, all the teachers escaped into the river close to the Nigerien border town of Diffa.
“Policemen also escaped into the river,” Abubakar said. “It was hard to immediately contact the media or anyone (to report the incident) because telephone lines were not functional in Damasak.”
Abubakar who now lives in Maiduguri said many of the captives may never be recovered as the jihadists moved them to neighboring Niger.
“Two of my female students who escaped from Boko Haram told me they were taken along with other children to Diffa in Niger,” he said. “The girls said some of their friends were married out to the militants.”
The numbers of school children taken by Boko Haram in Damasak exceed the 276 schoolgirls who were kidnapped from Chibok in April last year. But unlike the Chibok abductions which gained global attention and massive calls for action, the Damasak kidnappings was hardly reported in the media. And while the ‘Bring Back Our Girls’ movement that has been pressuring the government to rescue the missing schoolgirls continues to be heard, there has been no pressure group doing same for the kidnapped Damasak students.
A local social worker told me he and a few friends thought about starting a movement to put pressure on the government of former president Goodluck Jonathan to rescue the Damasak children, but were discouraged by local administrators who said the focus of the government was on the Chibok girls, and so, no one would listen to them.
When they brought back the idea months after President Muhammadu Buhari took office and with nothing coming from the government concerning the missing children, they were discouraged by local politicians who warned them against embarrassing the president who comes from the same northern region.
“The first time they (local administrators) said we should wait until the government rescues the Chibok girls before we can talk about Damasak,” the man who did not want to be identified for fear of being victimized by local authorities, said. “When we brought it up again they (local politicians) said we will be unfair to our person (Buhari).”
On the day the militants fled Damasak, they did not only take away the school children and the other captives held for months at the Zanna Mobarti Primary School, they also moved round the town, kidnapping children who were under 15 years of age including Hassan’s two sister, Aisha, 9, and Falmata, 13.
“I have lost sisters and cousins who should be in school to Boko Haram,” said Hassan, whose house was also burnt down during the raid. “I lost everything, and I haven’t being myself since then.”
Hassan didn’t just lose his house and relatives to Boko Haram, he said he knows over 10 other people abducted in Damasak by the militants, and their families are still grieving over their kidnap.
“Borom (Mohammed) in particular is inconsolable,” he said. “Every male figure in her live has been seized from her.”
Unlike the abducted Chibok schoolgirls whom the Nigerian government says it is in contact with their captors for their release, authorities are yet to speak about the Damasak kidnappings. The Daily Beast tried to contact presidential media adviser, Femi Adesina, for comments on the issue, but emails sent directly to him and to the government’s media office were not responded to.
Almost two years after the abductions, families of victims are calling on the government to take urgent steps to secure the release of these children.
“Let the government say something to at least give us hope,” Hassan said. “Everyone is looking up to them.”
A large part of this article originally appeared on The Daily Beast.
(Obaji Jr., wrote from Maiduguri, Borno State)