‘We will save you’: how Boko Haram tricked and kidnapped schoolgirls in Nigeria
Evening was falling and hundreds of students were preparing to break the fast observed every Monday at the girls’ boarding school in the small Nigerian town of Dapchi.
Watching them get ready to eat reminded Usman Mohammed, a school security guard, that it was time for his evening prayers. It was a school night like any other. Until suddenly it wasn’t.
“The food had just been served when we started hearing gunshots,” he said. He rushed to see what was happening. Girls were running in all directions. He could see strange men in army uniforms, carrying weapons. There were vehicles painted in military colours, with machine guns mounted on their roofs. But if you looked closer, you saw that “Allah is great” had been inscribed in Arabic on their bonnets.
“We immediately knew that these weren’t soldiers,” Mohammed said. “They surrounded the school and were shooting, even on the main road they were shooting.”
The strangers were trying to round up the girls. He remembered them shouting: “Stop, stop! We are not Boko Haram! We are soldiers, get into our vehicles. We will save you.”
Habiba Jekana, who suffers from sickle cell and had been off school with a fever, believed the men. Unable to walk, a friend lifted Habiba on to her back, carried her over to the truck, and hoisted both of them in.
The men were in fact members of Boko Haram, the violent group that calls itself Islamic while raping, murdering and kidnapping on a vast scale in northeast Nigeria. Some of the Dapchi girls and their families had heard of the Chibok girls -276 schoolchildren abducted by Boko Haram in 2014 to global condemnation – but they were not expecting the same to happen to them.
Dapchi is in Yobe, another state badly affected by Boko Haram, but the town had never been attacked before, and since Chibok, Nigeria had elected a new government, one that repeatedly claims that Boko Haram is beaten, decimated and on the run.
Officials have contradicted each other about the February 19 attack and in some cases released outright untruths.
Sitting outside the market, Mohammadu Mdada, a local vigilante, watched as two cars pulled up. Men with rifles got out and asked some startled tricycle taxi drivers the locations of soldiers, the hospital and the school. Duly directed, nine more cars sped after the men, fanning out towards the three targets. A wave of motorcycles followed. Motorcycles have been banned across the region, and that was how Mdada knew it was Boko Haram.
At the Government Girls Science and Technical College, Hafsat Abdullahi, 18, had just got out of the bath after fasting all day. She hadn’t even taken a sip of water when she heard the shots ring out.
Hafsat and her friends assumed the sound was the school’s dodgy electricity transformer, but changed their minds when they saw military men. “They said: ‘Come, let us help you, we are soldiers.’ We thought they really were. A lot of the students just jumped into their trucks.”
Hafsat didn’t see her, but one of those girls was Fatima, her little sister.
A lone dormitory porter seemed to realise what was happening, said Hafsat. “He was shouting to all of us: ‘Don’t get into those vehicles!’ But the girls just kept jumping in. Then [the porter] turned round and drove some of us towards the fence. We jumped over it and headed into the bush.”
Hafsat and three of her schoolmates bent down and sprinted away from the school, with bullets flying around their ears. “Allah helped us. None of the bullets hit any of us,” she said. Hundreds of girls hid out in the open that night.
With 110 girls loaded into their trucks, Boko Haram drove out through the school gates.
They went back past the vigilantes, who could do nothing, having only one musket between them. “The girls were shouting and crying, ‘Please help us! Save us’,” Mdada said. “The Boko Haram men had whips in their hands, flogging the girls. They said: ‘Keep quiet, you stupid things.’”
While Habiba was being lifted into the kidnappers’ truck, her father was roasting meat at his butcher’s shop when people started sprinting past, followed by strange cars. “I knew it was them and that this was trouble,” Mainama Jakana said.
He heard gunfire coming from the school and worried about his daughter Habiba, headed in that direction. But before he could get there, Jakana met the convoy loaded with captives.
“I followed one of the trucks carrying them,” he said. “I could hear the girls crying in the back of the truck, so I called out to the men. I pleaded with them to let my daughter go. I said she was not feeling well and she was a cripple. They told me to go back home. I kept on chasing the truck until it turned into the dusty road into the forest.”
There had been warnings. Four hours before, the vigilantes got a call from their friends in Guma, a village 35km away, to say that people dressed in military fatigues were heading their way. Then they got a call from another nearby village, Turma. They were too scared of the police to report it. “We were afraid that if, in fact, they didn’t come to Dapchi, or they turned out not to be Boko Haram, then we might be in trouble,” said Mdada. “You know the Nigerian police.”
According to other villagers, the district police officer left town suddenly that morning without telling his men; something they saw as highly suspicious. The military, meanwhile, was conspicuous by its absence at the school.
“There was not a single soldier around, none,” said Mohammed, the school security guard. “I don’t know where the soldiers went.”
Few lessons appear to have been learned from the abduction of the Chibok girls, who were taken when Boko Haram was run by Abubakar Shekau.
Since then, Islamic State have named Abu Musab al-Barnawi as its new leader, and the group have split. Although it is not known which faction did the kidnapping, it was doubtless attracted by the prospect of ransoms like those paid for the release of some of the Chibok girls.
The next day in Dapchi, as girls trickled back from the bush, their parents and the school started to figure out who had been kidnapped.
Almost immediately, the state government said many of the girls had been “rescued by gallant officers”. But the parents’ hopes were soon dashed; the governor arrived and told them no girls had been rescued after all.
For the abducted girls’ families, there is little to do but wait. “We came home and started praying day and night. That is how it has been since then,” said Jummei, the mother of Hafsat and Fatima. “We implore the world to pray for us.”