MAIDUGURI, Nigeria—On a week when a number of local airlines either cancelled or rescheduled flights owing to a scarcity of aviation fuel, all 21 recently released schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 by Boko Haram militants in the northeastern town of Chibok managed to board a flight from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja, and travel back to the scene of their abduction.
Their return was portrayed by the government as a kind of victory lap at a time when, it is said., no area in the region is held by the jihadists. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced on Friday that Boko Haram’s last remaining camp in the dense Sambisa Forest had being seized by Nigerian forces, although the so-called Islamic State, with which one faction of Boko Haram is allied, claimed on the same day that it had "killed and wounded many" in an attack on an army barracks in Yobe, another state in the northeast.
The jihadists may have lost their last major stronghold, but those who run either of the two factions of the sect are still alive. Militants loyal to erstwhile leader Abubakar Shekau, and those loyal to the new ISIS-appointed leader, Abu Musab al-Barnawi, are rumored to still have hideouts in the northeast, and they certainly do have bases in neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.
Of the 100 men named in the most-wanted terrorists list released by the army last year, only a handful have been captured. The others continue to run both factions, and only the 21 who travelled to Chibok on Thursday have been released this year. The worldwide #bringbackourgirls campaign that focused on the liberation of more than 200 young women from Chibok still has a long way to go.
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Since their release in October, the 21 have been treated like VIPs. They visited Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari days after a deal brokered by the International Red Cross and the Swiss government was reached with Boko Haram for their release, and they got the president’s assurance that the government will assume “the responsibility for their personal, educational and professional goals and ambitions in life.”
From the time they regained their freedom the girls have lived under tight vigilance in Abuja, and have received much attention from the government and the media. Even when they arrived in Yola on Dec. 23, they were accompanied by CNN correspondent Isha Sesay and received by Adamawa State Governor Mohammed Jibrilla.
In far away Washington, D.C., two previously kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls, who escaped from the militants in April 2014 and are currently studying in the U.S. on a scholarship, visited the White House on Dec. 17 to look at Christmas decorations.
Although it’s been a beautiful Christmas so far for these students, about 197 other Chibok schoolgirls still remain with the militants and the world is clamoring for their return.
But those aren’t the only schoolchildren abducted in northeastern Nigeria by Boko Haram. Far from it.
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There are hundreds of school kids—many far younger than the Chibok girls— still held by the militants. Yet no one is talking about them.
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, Borom’s husband, Mallam Goni, also was 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 has not begun to recover.
“She cries each time she sees young people around her,” says Bukkar Hassan, her neighbor in Damasak, whose two female cousins were 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 whereabouts, and no comment from the government regarding the issue.
On that same 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.
HRW said the militants occupied Zanna Mobarti Primary School in Damasak in November 2014 after taking control of the town. This was mmore than six months after the Chibok kidnappings.
At least 300 students were in the building, and in the months that followed, the insurgents forced the captured children to learn the Quran. When coalition forces from Chad and Niger closed in on Damasak in March 2015, the jihadists fled the town, taking along the 300 schoolchildren.
But those were not all.
As Boko Haram left Damasak, students who attended the Mohammed Goni Primary School and the Al Manil Islamic School. where Borom’s children received their education also were taken. Among them, according to Hassan, were his cousins Umrama, 8, and Yachalu, 13.
“They were captured on their way back from school,” says Hassan, who now lives in Maiduguri. “Up ‘til this moment, no one has heard anything about them.”
Students who attended the Government Secondary School (GSS), Damasak, also were kidnapped by Boko Haram on that same day 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 Abubakar. 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 2014. 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 Chibok girls continues to be heard, there has been no pressure group doing same for the kidnapped Damasak students.
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A community organizer in Maiduguri 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,” said the man who did not want to be identified for fear of being victimized by local authorities. “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 not only took 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 sisters, Aisha, 9, and Falmata, 13.
“I have lost sisters and cousins, who should be in schoo,l to Boko Haram,” said Hassan, whose house was also burned 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 life 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 answered.
More than a year after the abductions, activists have called on the government to take urgent steps to secure the release of these victims.
“Three hundred children have been missing for a year, and yet there has been not a word from the Nigerian government,” Mausi Segun, a researcher at HRW, said in the organization’s report on the incident. “The authorities need to wake up and find out where the Damasak children and other captives are—and take urgent steps to free them.”