More than 500 children went missing in Damasak. All but a handful are still unaccounted for. Photo: Open Doors International.

As thousands of refugees return home to northern Nigeria, they are discovering with dismay the scale of devastation left by Boko Haram.

In Damasak (Borno State), a city once occupied by the Islamist extremists, hundreds of children are missing. Most of them were seized by Boko Haram in autumn 2014.

In April, the militants had carried off 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, a kidnap that became the subject of a global campaign known by #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.

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

The Nigerian government, buoyed by a large international assistance package, has vowed to restore normality. But the least normal thing about Damasak – its hundreds of missing children – remains unresolved.

The Chibok girls have been the focus of protracted negotiations that led to the release of 21 of them in October. President Muhammadu Buhari has pledged again and again to free the rest.

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.

Source: The Washington Post