Grief Made in Chibok

One year after Boko Haram insurgents abducted over 200 female students of Government Secondary School, Chibok, Borno State, parents and community members are still in grief hoping that their daughters would soon return


Oby Ezekwesili shouts slogans during a rally calling on the Government to rescue the school girls kidnapped from the Chibok Government secondary school, in Abuja, Nigeria, Sunday May 11,-2014

Oby Ezekwesili shouts slogans during a rally calling on the Government to rescue the school girls kidnapped from the Chibok Government secondary school, in Abuja, Nigeria, Sunday May 11,-2014

Any visitor to Chibok, Borno State, on a Wednesday would not believe it was the sleepy little town where 275 young female students of Government Secondary School, Chibok were abducted a year ago by Boko Haram insurgents.

Wednesday is a market day and people from far and surrounding villages converge on Chibok to sell and buy farm produce, groceries, livestock and other sundry articles. The market spills over to the road and vehicles have to horn repeatedly to get people out of the way.

It is difficult to imagine that this is the community that is going through the trauma of not knowing the whereabouts of its over 200 young daughters whose location are mere conjectures. The immediate deductions would be that the community had decided to move on with its life after a year of agonising but fruitless wait for the girls. This is what the buzz in the town on Wednesdays suggests until the market is over and you sit down with any of the residents to discuss the abduction.

Then it would appear the wound is still fresh, and the grief settles on the face all over again. The mind goes back to the tragedy and the voice loses it vigour. For those directly affected by the loss, the eyes could not hold back tears and the flashback seems like another torture.

Like Josephine Audu, whose 16-year-old daughter is one of the victims, introducing the subject seemed like a painful injection rushed back into her room. Her neighbours had to rush to console her. Her husband was out of town. Some of the other parents were said to have either relocated to other towns or still lived in surrounding villages.

One-of-the-mothers-of-the-missing-Chibok-school-girls-wipes-her-tears-as-she-cries-during-a-rally-by-civil-society-groups-pressing-for-the-release-of-the-girls-in-Abuja

One of the mothers of the missing Chibok school girls wipes her tears as she cries during a rally by civil society groups pressing for the release of the girls in Abuja

Waziri Wadir, a community leader in Chibok, whose niece was among the abducted girls, said, “We have waited patiently for government to bring our girls back, but all we hear is that the girls have been located somewhere, and then we hear again that they have not been seen. It is agonising for a parent to live everyday without any cheering news about their daughters; some of them have died of high blood pressure.”

For Lawan Amdau, village head of Chibok, the grief of the community is hiding deep inside everyone and only a parent would appreciate how emotionally ravaging such tragedy can be. It is even more frustrating for them because no government official comes to give them any information regarding the situation of the girls. They have to rely on the radio as their only source of information.

He said: “How can we be at peace when our girls are still missing and we haven’t seen them? This thing is beyond our power that is why we have kept quiet. There is nothing we can do on our own, we depend on the government to find our daughters and bring them back to us. We have not heard that the girls are dead yet and we don’t know whether they are still alive. We are just in a hopeless situation.”

Despite the unending stories of abduction of girls and boys by insurgents in the North-east, Chibok still has a good number of them. Girls of school age can still be seen in the town, but residents say most of them came on a visit. One of the girls told the magazine she came on holiday from Yola to see her parents. She knew some of the abducted girls although she was not a student of the school. “I pray that they would come back to this village very soon,” she said. Her parents did not allow the magazine take her photograph.

Aggrieved Chibok Women Storm Abuja, Protest At National Assembly

Aggrieved Chibok Women Storm Abuja, Protest At National Assembly

For a town that has caught the imagination of the world continuously for a year now, not much has changed, except for heavy presence of soldiers protecting the community. The only secondary school in the town still lies in ruins and soldiers have erected their tents along the school walls facing the community. Members of the local vigilante, some of who now carry guns, can also be seen at strategic locations all around the town. According to Amdau, no one would have remained in the town if there were no heavy presence of security.

But even the security cordon around the town is scant consolation as there are still continuing cases of killings and abductions in surrounding communities. Last Tuesday, some residents of Kautikari village near Chibok were slain in their homes by insurgents. The level of insecurity around Chibok is forcing many people to relocate to Chibok, which is considered the safest town in the area now.

But that is the only thing that has changed for these people. The roads leading into the town are still dusty and full of gullies. From Maiduguri the visitor would travel on tarred road up to Damboa before diverting to the road to Chibok. The distance is less than 35 kilometres but it is about one and half hour’s drive because the road is an unpaved, dusty and undulating bush path. These are not the only problems afflicting people of the area.

Amdau said: “We also need good road. Our road is very bad. There is no electricity in this town, we are in darkness. They should give us electricity. There is also no water; we’re suffering here because of lack of drinking water. A jerry can of water here is sold for N50; sometimes you can’t even get to buy, and how many people can afford N50 for one jerry can of water?”

Last week the BringBackOurGirls campaigners, a non-governmental organisation, led by former education minister, Oby Ezekwesili and Hadiza Bala-Usman, started an anniversary march in Abuja. The girls abducted April 14, 2014 has spearheaded civil society action to pressure the government to ensure they are recovered from their abductors. They also took the campaign abroad appealing to Western nations and international organisations to demand from the Nigerian government the return of the girls. The anniversary parade includes a march of 219 Chibok girls’ ambassadors around Abuja. Tagged Global Week of Action, the ambassadors represent the 219 girls that are still in Boko Haram captivity. According to Olatunji Olanrewaju, one of the leaders of the group, the march is to “re-awaken the country and the world to the continuing absence of the Chibok girls”.

PRESIDENT GOODLUCK JONATHAN WITH SOME OF THE PARENTS OF THE ABDUCTED CHIBOK GIRLS DURING THE MEETING TODAY IN ABUJA

PRESIDENT GOODLUCK JONATHAN WITH SOME OF THE PARENTS OF THE ABDUCTED CHIBOK GIRLS DURING THE MEETING TODAY IN ABUJA

Olanrewaju told the magazine that in the history of abductions all over the world, one year was a long period to be in the captivity of terrorists. He said it was a horrifying experience for the parents of the abducted girls to wait for their girls fruitlessly for a year. He stressed that the strategy of the outgoing administration of Goodluck Jonathan had obviously failed to bring back the girls and the group was waiting to engage the next administration.

He said: “We are waiting to engage the incoming government on how to bring back the girls. They must convince us that they have a strategy that is different from what has happened so far which is not working. For one year, not one of the girls has been rescued by the security forces. Out of the 276 that were initially abducted, 57 managed to escape on their own and up till today none of the remaining girls has been rescued.”

Alex Badeh, chief of defence staff, had said in May 2014, that the military had discovered the location of the girls and had not rescued them then because it was careful to avoid an operation that would result in loss of lives. The information was refuted barely 24 hours later and Badeh was severely criticised for falsely raising the hope of the nation.

Last October, Badeh also said a ceasefire deal had been reached with some leaders of Boko Haram that would lead to the release of the girls. He subsequently announced that all ongoing military operations against the militant sect be suspended. The deal also turned out to be a ruse. Since then the military has refused to comment on the situation of the girls. Chris Olukolade, director of defence information, could not be reached for comment on the girls. He also did not respond to text messages sent to his phone.

But top sources in the military confided in the magazine that the army had no specific operation targeted at the rescue of the girls. Instead, there is a general operation against insurgents in the North-east. The military high command is operating with the belief that once it is able to cripple the infrastructure of the insurgents, it would be easy to rescue the girls.

But the recent successes of military operations against the insurgents, which culminated in the destruction of the sect’s headquarters in Gwoza, have obviously failed to yield the girls. Some of the girls that escaped Boko Haram captivity had revealed that the girls were being held in Gwoza, and the military may have operated with that in view.

Some have expressed fears that the girls may have been married out to members of the sect and even taking out to neighbouring countries of Niger, Chad and Cameroon. Some have also suggested that some of the girls may be among young females used as suicide bombers in recent times. Abubakar Shekau, leader of the sect, boasted a few weeks after the abduction of the girls that he had converted the girls to Islam, and that the girls were now Muslims who believed in the cause of the sect.

Nigeria defence chief Air Marshal Alex Badeh, center, speaks during a demonstration calling on the government to rescue the kidnapped schoolgirls on May 26, 2014

Badeh: Criticised for raising alarm over location of the girls

But all these still remain in the realm of speculations and there was yet no concrete, authentic information on what has become of the girls. But the Chibok community and the BringBackOurGirls campaigners still nurse the hope that the girls would be found and brought back home.

Tsambido Abana, chairman of the Chibok community in Abuja, told the magazine last week that they believe the girls would come back. “We have hope that the girls would come back, especially with the new administration that is coming, we believe the president would do everything possible to get the girls back from wherever they are,” he said. He said the people of Chibok, especially parents of the abducted girls, have suffered for too long, and the new government should make recovering the girls a top priority.

While the fate of 219 girls in captivity is still uncertain, the 57 who escaped are said to be getting back their lives and pursuing different career paths. Although it was difficult to reach the girls before going to press, the magazine was informed that the girls were in various schools across the country and abroad. Different foundations are sponsoring the girls’ education.

Fifteen of the girls are studying different courses at the American University of Nigeria, AUN, in Yola, courtesy of the AUN Foundation. A United Sates, US-based foundation is also sponsoring the education of seven of the girls in the US. The others have been placed in various institutions in the country by the Borno State government. They are in institutions in Zaria, Katsina and Maiduguri while those who could not go further are learning different vocations.

There is no doubt that a lot is being expected from the in-coming administration of Muhammadu Buhari, president-elect. But the greatest expectation and the most urgent, is the rescue of the Chibok girls. This has to be so because Buhari and his party – the All Progressive Congress, APC, made insecurity and the Chibok girls as campaign issues, and promised to do the right thing.

While no one believes the rescue effort may be easy, expectations are high because of Buhari’s military experience. When he was in service, he was said to have defeated the Maitasene Islamic sect, a militant group that had similar agenda as Boko Haram. But until the girls are re-united safely with their parents, there is no end in sight for the grieving parents of Chibok. 

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