A year later, the parents are still crying.
It was April 14, 2014 when militants of the radical Islamic group Boko Haram kidnapped about 275 teenage school girls from Chibok, a predominantly Christian village in northeastern Nigeria. Some 232 of them are still missing, and for much of the year, little has been heard of their fate.
But in the offices of the Centre for Caring, Empowerment and Peace Initiatives, the Chibok kidnappings remain a daily reality.
“Just recently, one of the sisters of the Chibok girls came to our office and asked for some food stores and mattress because she said her mother is always crying. She said they are always near her, comforting her, as nobody is taking care of her,” said Rebecca Dali, who runs the centre.
Some parents of abducted girls are now in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, Dali said. About 30 are in Yola, in the north-eastern state of Adamawa, but most remain in Chibok, in Borno state neighbouring Adamawa. Some have been killed, or have had their homes burned, by militants. Dali’s own town of Michika, on Nigeria’s eastern border, was over-run by Boko Haram and she, like so many others, had to flee the area.
Boko Haram, meanwhile, is finally being challenged by multi-national military forces. And Nigerians, partly because of the kidnappings and the government’s failure to deal with the insurgency, have chosen a new president.
As government and coalition forces have pushed Boko Haram back, gruesome reports of mass graves, and bodies – many of them female – dumped into wells, have emerged. The natural question is whether the dead include any of the girls who had been abducted from Chibok, but no official confirmation has emerged.
“We don’t know whether we will get them all back, but we hope that the new President will do his best to bring back some of them alive.”
–Rebecca Dali, Centre for Caring, Empowerment and Peace Initiatives
It was around 10 p.m. on April 14, 2014, that Seven Toyota Hilux trucks, loaded with armed men, rolled into the school compound. Some of the men set fire to buildings. Others overpowered the security guards, stormed the dormitories, and, at gunpoint, attempted to force 275 students into the trucks, though around 20 managed to avoid being rounded up. The loaded vehicles sped away, disappearing into the Sambisa Forest.
Early news reports said 100 girls had been kidnapped, then 200. Ultimately, the grim tally was complete: 252 girls had been stolen. About 20 eventually escaped, but the rest (232 according to the Christian organisation Open Doors, which supports persecuted Christians) haven’t been heard from since they disappeared. Most were Christians, members of the Church of the Brethren.
Joyce, 17, is one of those who got away. Speaking to World Watch Monitor, she recalled the night when the men came. Her last name is being withheld to help protect her identity in Nigeria.
“We were still awake in the school dormitory when militants, on several vehicles, arrived. We thought they were military.
“They ordered us to gather in one place, before setting fire to our buildings. Even our own personal belongings were not spared.”
The men loaded Joyce and her classmates onto the vehicles, threatening to shoot anyone who opposed them, she said. The insurgents drove off into the forest, where they had set up camps.
“They gave us drinks and we were asked to prepare food to eat,” Joyce said. At about 2 p.m. the next day, “as I pretended to go to the toilet, I managed to escape, along with two other classmates.”
They ran for hours before reaching a camp of Fulani, an ethnic group of largely nomadic herders, at about 8 p.m., she said. The three girls spent the night at the camp, and then reached their homes the following day, exhausted.
Another 18-year-old who also escaped the kidnappers spoke of how she managed to jump off a truck to the 7th annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.
— The First Lady (@FLOTUS) May 7, 2014
The disappearance of the Chibok girls eventually generated headlines around the world and fueled a social-media storm around the tag #bringbackourgirls. Joining the campaign were public figures such as American First Lady Michelle Obama and Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani schoolgirl who survived a 2012 assassination attempt by the Taliban.
Political leaders, such as Gordon Brown, the former UK Prime Minister and now a UN Education Envoy, also raised their voices. Last year, as he visited Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, he launched a “safe schools initiative” aimed at providing security for around 500 schools in northern Nigeria. Ahead of the first anniversary of the kidnapping, Brown said, the “fight to bring back our girls must continue”.
“I want them to know we have not and will not give up on finding them,” he wrote. “Success in the fight for the release of the Chibok girls will be significant. It will not only save the lives of 220 lost girls but it will be the next major milestone on the road to universal liberation,” he added.
Nigeria’s Army Chief, Lieutenant General Kenneth Minimah, said that despite recent territorial gains against Boko Haram, there’s no sign of the girls. “In all the liberated areas we have also made enquiries, but when the Boko Haram fighters flee they take their dependents with them.”
“Those we have come into contact with have not made any comment suggesting that the Chibok girls were there and were taken away,” he added.
In a video that surfaced shortly after the mass abduction, a man identified as Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, claimed that the missing school girls had been converted to Islam and forced to marry Muslim men.
“I am the one who captured all those girls and will sell all of them,” the man in the video said. “I have a market where I sell human beings because it is Allah who says I should sell human beings. Yes, I will sell women.”
For weeks, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said nothing about the abduction. On May 17 he finally announced he would visit Chibok, then cancelled the trip. However, he did attend an international summit in Paris on tackling Boko Haram. Eventually he heard some of the parents’ anguish first-hand – but they were brought to his Presidential Palace.
Nor was there any mention of the girls in the government’s official speech on the nation’s 54th Independence Day on October 1st 2014, prompting an angry protest in Abuja. Some 500 people marched in the streets of the capital, accusing Jonathan of ”insensitivity” and of failing his oath of office.
Criticism also came from Nigerian Bishops.
“In the face of this Boko Haram group and other criminal militias arming themselves beyond our legitimate government, and brazenly killing innocent, defenseless citizens, our government must do more than it is currently doing to safeguard our lives and defend our nation,” read a September 2014 statement issued by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria.
Failed truce, dashed hope
On several occasions, rumors of an imminent release of the missing girls surfaced, but came to nothing. Six weeks or so after the kidnap, an Australian mediator named Stephen Davis claimed he came within 15 minutes of winning the release of some of the girls, before the deal dissolved. In September, the government made an announcement, but the military later backed away from it.
In October, the Nigerian government announced a cease-fire with the radical group and the release of kidnapped girls. The reported truce was said to have been reached after a month of negotiations, mediated in Saudi Arabia by Chadian president Idriss Deby and officials from Cameroon, two countries that border Nigeria’s restive northeast.
The claim was cautiously welcomed by Nigeria’s Christian leaders and Chibok community leaders, but it, too, turned out to be empty words.
During the year since the girls were snatched away, at least 11 of the parents have died, some from heart attacks and stress-related illnesses.
The new President, Muhammadu Buhari, pledged in his acceptance speech to end Boko Haram’s insurgency, with no specific reference to the Chibok girls.
“No doubt, this nation has suffered greatly in the recent past, and its staying power has been tested to its limits by crises, chief among which is insurgency of the Boko Haram,” Buhari said. “There is no doubt that in tackling the insurgency we have a tough and urgent job to do. But I assure you that Boko Haram will soon know the strength of our collective will and commitment to rid this nation of terror, and bring back peace and normalcy to all the affected areas. We shall spare no effort until we defeat terrorism.”
Rebecca Dali said parents continue to wonder why the government neglects them, and why it is not pursuing efforts to bring back their daughters.
“We don’t know about their fate,” she said. “If Boko Haram married them off, as they claimed, and took them as their wives, some of them may be killed by now. Because in recent weeks, as the Army advances against them, witnesses report that militants have slaughtered lots of their wives. They said they don’t want infidels to marry their wives.
“We fear that some Chibok girls may be included. We don’t know whether we will get them all back, but we hope that the new President will do his best to bring back some of them alive.”