Families of more than 300 kidnapped Nigerian schoolboys worried they may be brainwashed or held for years as security forces continued the hunt on Wednesday for armed captors possibly from the jihadist Boko Haram movement.
According to an unverified audio clip, the Islamist group – whose name means “Western education is forbidden” – was responsible for last week’s raid on an all-boys school in Kankara town in northwestern Katsina state.
Parents fear time may be running out: Boko Haram has a history of turning captives into jihadist fighters.
“They will radicalise our children if the government does not act fast to help us rescue them,” trader Shuaibu Kankara stopped from his home, stopping to cry.
His 13-year-old son Annas was among those abducted from the Government Science school on Friday night.
Two other sons managed to escape, he added, when men on motorbikes with AK-47 assault rifles stormed the school and marched the boys into a forest.
Nnamdi Obasi, senior adviser with security think tank International Crisis Group, said the boys may have been taken over the porous border with Niger, about an hour’s drive north, as has happened with past kidnappings in the area
“That would make the task of rescuing the boys a lot more complicated,” he said, adding that they may also have been split into small groups to make locating them harder.
Boko Haram and its offshoot, Islamic State West Africa Province, have waged a decade-long insurgency estimated to have displaced about 2 million people and killed more than 30,000. They want to create states based on their extreme interpretation of Islamic sharia law.
If Boko Haram carried out the kidnapping in an area where it had not previously claimed attacks, that would mark a worrying expansion beyond its northeastern base, security experts say. But it may have purchased the boys from criminal gangs in the northwest with whom it has been building ties.
CHIBOK GIRLS REMEMBERED
Nigerian soldiers and intelligence officers were combing the Rugu forest on Friday in search of the roughly 320 missing schoolboys, Abdu Labaran, an aide to Katsina’s state governor, told Reuters.
One of the largest forests in Nigeria, Rugu straddles three states and includes woodland near the school.
The mass abduction echoes Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 girls from a school in the northeastern town of Chibok. The attack stunned Nigerians and gave rise to a global #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
Six years on, only about half have been found or freed. Others were married to fighters, while some are assumed dead.
“We pray it’s not going to be another situation of the Chibok girls’ abduction,” said Ahmed Bakori, a farmer whose 14-year-old son Abubakar was among those taken.
Anxious authorities in four nearby states – Kano, Kaduna, Zamfara, and Jigawa – announced late on Tuesday that they would close all their state schools.
At the Government Science compound, about two dozen parents came on Wednesday and prayed in the school mosque. The compound, comprising of white single-storey buildings built on dusty red soil, was quiet.
Abubakar Lawal, who has two children taken, said he did not believe Boko Haram’s claim and would wait with patience and prayers.
“The government has to do diplomacy in a way to rescue these people in a good manner and to come back safely,” he said, standing outside the school building.
The attack is awkward for Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from Katsina and arrived on a private visit hours before it happened. He has said that Boko Haram was “technically defeated.”
Around the nation, anger and anxiety was building, with #BringBackOurBoys trending on Twitter.
With Reuters report