“I thought it was the end of my life,” Deborah Sanya told me by phone on Monday from Chibok, a tiny town of farmers in north-eastern Nigeria.
“There were many, many of them.”
Boko Haram, an Islamist terrorist group, kidnapped Sanya and at least 200 of her classmates from a girls’ secondary school in Chibok more than two weeks ago. Sanya, along with two friends, escaped. So did 40 others. The rest have vanished, and their families have not heard any word of them since.
Sanya is 18 years old and was taking her final exams before graduation. Many of the schools in towns around Chibok, in the state of Borno, had been shuttered.
Boko Haram attacks at other schools, like a recent massacre of 59 schoolboys in neighbouring Yobe state, had prompted the mass closure.
But local education officials decided to briefly reopen the Chibok school for exams.
On the night of the abduction, militants showed up at the boarding school dressed in Nigerian military uniforms. They told the girls that they were there to take them to safety.
“They said, ‘Don’t worry. Nothing will happen to you,’” Sanya told me.
The men took food and other supplies from the school and then set the building on fire.
They herded the girls into trucks and onto motorcycles.
At first, the girls, while alarmed and nervous, believed that they were in safe hands.
When the men started shooting their guns into the air and shouting “Allahu Akbar,” Sanya told me, she realised that the men were not who they said they were. She started begging God for help; she watched several girls jump out of the truck that they were in.
It was noon when her group reached the terrorists’ camp. She had been taken not far from Chibok, a couple of remote villages away in the bush.
The militants forced her classmates to cook; Sanya couldn’t eat. Two hours later, she pulled two friends close and told them that they should run.
One of them hesitated, and said that they should wait to escape at night. Sanya insisted, and they fled behind some trees.
The guards spotted them and called out for them to return, but the girls kept running.
They reached a village late at night, slept at a friendly stranger’s home, and, the next day, called their families.
Sanya could not tell me more after that. She is not well.
Her cousins and her close friends are still missing, and she is trying to understand how she is alive and back home.
All she can do now, she said, is pray and fast, then pray and fast again.
The day after the abduction, the Nigerian military claimed that it had rescued nearly all of the girls.
A day later, the military retracted its claim; it had not actually rescued any of the girls.
And the number that the government said was missing, just over a hundred, was less than half the number that parents and school officials counted: according to their tally, 234 girls were taken.
In the wake of the military’s failure, parents banded together and raised money to send several of their number into the forest to search for the girls.
The group came across villagers who persuaded the parents to turn back. They told the parents that they had seen the girls nearby, but the insurgents were too well armed.
Many of the parents had just bows and arrows.
Children have been killed, along with their families, in numerous Boko Haram bombings and massacres over the past five years. (More than 1 500 people have been killed so far this year.) State schools and remote villages in the north have borne the brunt of Boko Haram’s violence this year. The group is believed to be at least partly waging a campaign against secular values. The kidnapped girls were both Christian and Muslim; their only offence, it seems, was attending school.
Last June, I visited Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state and the birthplace of Boko Haram, to report on the insurgency and the Nigerian government’s counter-offensive, a security operation that placed three north-eastern states, including Borno and Yobe, under a state of emergency as troops launched attacks on terrorist hideouts and camps.
The military cut phone lines and Internet access, and, while residents were glad for the intervention, there was a sense of living in the dark. Gunshots, a bomb blast: was it Boko Haram or a military attack? Were the hundreds of men disappeared by the military actually terrorists—even the young boys? And was the government, as it claimed, really winning the war?
The military has restored phone lines in Borno. But the sole airline that flew to Maiduguri cancelled the route at the end of last year. The road to Chibok is so hazardous that Borno’s governor visited the town with a heavy military escort. Much of the north-east is now physically isolated. What is happening there that we cannot see?
Nigerians in the rest of the country had, until recently, been able to ignore the deaths. The general mood has been one of weary apathy — from a government waging a heavy-handed crackdown on northerners to civilians far removed from the chaos. That mood may finally change.
Sanya’s father, a primary-school teacher named Ishaya Sanya, is struggling with conflicting emotions: gratitude that his daughter has returned to him; guilt that the daughters of his siblings, friends, and neighbours are still somewhere in the bush; and an angry frustration that there seemed to be no effort to rescue the girls.
“We don’t know where they are up until now, and we have not heard anything from the government,” he told me. “Every house in Chibok has been affected by the kidnapping.” The only information that the families had been able to gather about the kidnapped girls, he went on, was from the girls who had escaped.
He remembers the exact time that Deborah appeared in front of him after her escape — 4.30pm — and how he felt: “very happy.” But his despair soon returned. “Our area has been affected very seriously,” he told me. Parents had fallen physically ill, and some were “going mad.”
The military’s current plans are unclear; the Chibok parents hope that it is acting swiftly and cautiously. There is worry, too, that a rescue operation could result in the deaths of many of the girls; this happened during a previous attempted rescue, of two Western engineers kidnapped by Boko Haram. Last week, a military spokesman, Brigadier-General Chris Olukolade, said only that the search for the girls had “intensified.”
In the meantime, as in so many other ways in Nigeria, each community has to fend for itself. For a while after the abduction, girls trickled back into town — some rolled off trucks, some snuck away while fetching water. That trickle has stopped. “Nobody rescued them,” a government official in Chibok said of the girls who made it back. “I want you to stress this point. Nobody rescued them. They escaped on their own. This is painful.”
A pastor in Chibok whose daughter is missing told me that he set out with friends on the morning after the abduction to find the girls.
“I was forced to come home empty-handed,” he told me by phone. “I just don’t know what the federal government is doing about it. And there is no security here that will defend us. You have to do what you can do to escape for your life.”
I asked the pastor about rumours that Boko Haram has taken the girls outside of Nigeria’s borders, into Cameroon and Chad, and forcibly married them. He paused, and then said, “How will I be happy? How will I be happy?” — The New Yorker.
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