By Charles Dickson
Despite coming from a poor home in the desperately poor village of Jajeel in Borno State, Hannatu Ishaku, 16, always had big dreams. As early as when she was 10, she promised herself that she would be the first lawyer from her village, something that made her parents happy.
Today, however, her parents’ happiness has evaporated because Hannatu’s bold dream looks like it is dead. Grief, anger and regret have replaced happiness in their home.
Hannatu is one of over 200 girls who were kidnapped by members of the outlawed Boko Haram sect from the Government Girls’ Secondary School, GGSS, Chibok, on April 14, 2014.
For the Ishaku family, it was a double loss. Also abducted was Hannatu’s cousin, Anthonia Yohanna, 18, who lived with the family for years.
Adamu Ishaku, the patriarch of the family, spoke to our reporter shortly before last Christmas. He looked frail and sad-eyed, apparent consequences of the trauma her daughter’s abduction has brought on him.
“The five of us lived together,” Ishaku said. “Now it’s just me, my wife, and her brother. Without those two, the house is empty.”
Ishaku’s wife looks worse. The unfortunate event has sapped her of vitality. The little energy she has left was expended on weeping as she spoke with the reporter. Her daughter’s dream of becoming a lawyer no longer matters. What matters is for her to see Hannatu.
“I just want my daughter. I am not interested in her going to school anymore,” she said dejectedly in a tone that betrayed hope, not expectation.
What really happened in Chibok?
The world woke up one morning last April to the shocking news of the kidnap of over 200 girls who were writing their West African Examination Council, WAEC, examination at the GGSS, Chibok, Borno State.
Investigations by the icirnigeria.org in Chibok showed that there had been a lot of misrepresentation of facts about the kidnap of the girls.
First, our findings indicate that there were also male students in the school at the time of the incident. From the records obtained by this website, a total of 530 students comprising 395 girls and 135 boys had registered in the school for the examination. However, not a single boy was kidnapped or killed.
When our reporter visited the school in December, 2014, the name on the signboard of the school read Government Secondary School Chibok. The Girls had been deleted
Also, contrary to the general assumption, it was discovered that not all the students are from Chibok.
The school’s principal, Hajia Asabe Kwabura, would not speak with our reporter, .claiming that she had been instructed not to talk to the press. “I have been warned not to speak anymore to the media,” she said.
Incidentally, we also confirmed that other staff of the school, including the gateman who was on duty on the day of the girls’ abduction, had also been ordered not to speak to the press or anybody else.
Even then, it was learnt that most of the 530 students at the GGSS examination centre came from outside Chibok. A source, who cannot be named, said many schools in the area had declined being chosen as an examination centre because of threats of attacks from Boko Haram gunmen who are known to have targeted educational facilities in the past because of their opposition to western education.
So, when the school in Chibok was chosen, students from many villages and towns in the area were sent there to sit for their WAEC.
Apart from this, there are other details about the kidnap that are either distorted or falsified. Many of the people in Chibok and other affected communities expressed dismay and anger about some of the misinformation reported about the girls’ abduction.
One of the biggest controversies about the Chibok incident is the exact number of girls that were kidnapped at the school. Figures ranging from 200 to 276 have been reported in local and international media.
However, investigations by the icirnigeri.org indicate that of the 395 girls who were registered to sit for examination in the school on April 14, 2014, 189 were accounted for after the terrorists left.
If this is true, then it means that a total of 206 girls were kidnapped.
Besides, the actual number of girls kidnapped also is the controversy over how many of them are from Chibok. From all indications, although all the abducted girls are referred to as ‘Chibok girls”, not all of them are from Chibok. In fact, less than 100 of them might have come from that rustic, hilly community.
Samson Dama, uncle to one of the abducted girls, Maifa Dama, observed that there is so much that the public does not know, adding that “the secondary school here was what they call ‘Special Centre, so many of the girls were from other communities in Borno.”
Some of the Chibok girls’ parents confided that only about 70 of the girls in the video released by Boko Haram leader, Ibrahim Shekau, could be identified as coming from the community.
Even then, some of the parents in Chibok observed that they did not see their daughters in the said video.
When our reporter sat with some of the parents in Chibok to watch the video once again, one of them, Ibrahim, whose daughter, Ladi, was kidnapped, shouted: “My daughter is not amongst the faces and there are only a handful of our girls in this video.”
Also, considering that about 57 of the girls have so far escaped, there might be even fewer girls than previously assumed still being held by the Boko Haram.
Anger is palpable in Chibok and surrounding communities and there is a general feeling of betrayal and abandonment, not only by government but also the whole world.
Many of the parents who spoke to our reporter expressed disappointment over the handling of the kidnap saga by the government and the security forces. And, although they would not say it, it is obvious that some of the parents have lost hope of their girls ever coming back. But they all maintain a stoic public show of hope and strength.
Apart from getting their girls back, one of the things that anger the people of Chibok most is that no one has really explained to them what really happened – how hundreds of girls were kidnapped and transported over vast territories of land without being apprehended by the military forces.
No matter what anybody tells them to soothe their pain, the people say that too many questions have been left unanswered.
In the hours following the girls’ disappearance, there were reports that their abductors were keeping them in Sambisa Forest, but the military did not appear ready to investigate it.
At a point, the Chibok parents, in desperation, swore that they would defy the risk and go after the terrorists in the forest. The forest, which incorporates an abandoned wildlife park, had allegedly become a base and training camp for Boko Haram terrorists.
Buba, a parent whose daughter, Nguba Isone, is one of the missing girls, alleged: “Our daughters were in Sambisa for more than a week before they were moved to another of their camps.”
The girls who escaped
Perhaps, the most credible source of information about what exactly happened, how the girls were kidnapped and transported and where they were taken and are still being held, would be the girls who have escaped from the den of the insurgents.
In all, 57 of the girls are said to have escaped or been let go by the terrorists. However, getting to talk to the girls was a real Herculean task, as their parents now shield them from public attention, particularly the media.
Even when we eventually got some the girls to speak, they were careful and restrained, almost reticent, and it was obvious they had either been tutored to be circumspect or the psychological trauma inflicted by their experience made recounting their ordeal difficult
Rebbeca Isaac, one of the first girls to escape from captivity, speaking with icirnigeria.org, tried to reconstruct the day of the kidnap and after for us. “I only know that we were reading and then we heard shots. When they came into the school, we thought they were soldiers, because they were wearing uniforms,” she gloomily recalled.
Wriggling her hand and half closing her eyes momentarily as if to blot out the memories, she continued: “They marched us out into two big trucks and some small black vans. Initially we thought we were being rescued, not knowing that they were Boko Haram.”
At this point, Rebecca could not continue as she broke down in tears and was hurriedly taken away by her mother. Luckily, her father said, the poor girl has returned to school – though not to her former school in Chibok.
One of Rebecca’s aunts said that she was just lucky to have escaped. According to the account that she gave to her family, although Rebecca and the other girls never had any idea where they were held, they had a sense of their being in some remote village with mostly Fulani type houses.
The girls who escaped did so mostly because the Boko Haram men could not keep an eye on all of them at the same time. So, some of the girls strayed into neighbouring settlements and were able to flee from there. (The family of the girls asked that we do not publish further detail about their escape).
Bridget, (not her real name as she did not want to be identified), another girl who escaped and was a bit more forthcoming with information, perhaps, because her parents allowed her to speak with our reporter alone, said that there were many women and girls in the Boko Haram camp where she was held.
According to her there were more than 100 women and girls in the camp when they arrived there. Many were apparently members of the family of the Boko Haram men as they were lodged in separate buildings.
Bridget said the girls slept mostly on mats spread on bare floors and that many of them were forced to recite the Qu’ran many times daily. Many of the girls, including the ones captured in Chibok, agreed to convert to Islam because they feared the consequences of not doing so.
For those who refused to convert, however, they were given more work to do in the camp.
But for some who agreed to convert, however, a worse fate awaited them because a few of them were forcefully taken over as wives.
“We later learnt that the men refused to marry any of us who did not convert to Islam because they said they could not marry an unbeliever,” Bridget said.
She also confirmed that some of the girls were raped, but believes that these were only those who had been forced into marriage by the insurgents.
She said that there was no provision for medical care and any of the girls that dared fall sick was left alone until she got better or taken away from the camp to an unknown destination.
Another girl who was lucky to escape from her captors, Esther Ezekiel, also spoke to our reporter.
She said that it took days for the kidnappers to take the girls to the place where they were eventually held. She, like other girls who have escaped from captivity, did not know where she was.
“They took us into a room and they raped some of my friends,” she said, pausing for a while and then adding “till today I still have dreams about the whole incident.”
Esther, however, makes a significant disclosure when she observed “none of the boys with us were kidnapped or killed.”
It had never been reported that there were any boys in the school at the time of the abduction of the girls. Most people had assumed that there were only girls in the school because it is a girls’ school.
But our findings indicate that there were 135 male students in the GGSS, Chibok when over 200 girls were kidnapped. Apparently, students, both male and female, had been registered to take their WAEC examination in the school.
That would have been impossible in a predominantly Muslim community. But in a Christian town like Chibok, boys and girls in the same examination hall would not be too far-fetched a scenario.
However, it is still curious that the ruthless Boko Haram gunmen had absolutely no interest in scores of male students they met at the school when they abducted the girls.
Sorrow, tears and anger
The atmosphere in Chibok when the icirnigeria.org first visited shortly before last Christmas was really gloomy. Sorrow hung like a dark cloud over the hilly community where all now feel the tragedy of a few.
For every resident of this small town, life can never be the same again. Although they are trying to pick up the pieces of their lives, it is virtually impossible to do so with the unresolved matter of the abduction of the girls.
Watching many of the residents, particularly families of the abducted girls, life is a grim existence in slow motion.
For the Dama family, whose two daughters, Maifa and Gloria, are missing, one of their uncles said that the pain of their disappearance is unbearable.
“For some of us, it is daily becoming a reality that this December will be the worst ever, spent in tears and our daughters gone,” he lamented.
One thing is certain: Although many of the parents still hold on to a shred of hope that their abducted daughters would return home someday, many of them are realistic and entertaining the painful possibility that they might never return.
Pastor Mark Enoch, whose two daughters were kidnapped, is willing to face up to that brutal eventuality.
“I do not see our daughters coming back, at least not the way they left,” he said. Enoch explained that the best he hopes for is that more of the kidnap girls would escape from their captors and return home.
“We located one of the girls recently in a village in Taraba,” he disclosed as if to rationalize his hope, adding that there had been similar cases of discovery of the girls in the past.
“We refused to let the authorities know; we only hope that once in a while there may be cases like that one,” he said.
In Chibok, there is a constant need of hearing words of hope. While in Chibok, our reporter attended a meeting of few parents of the abducted girls at which a pastor from Maiduguri, who did not want his name mentioned, was preaching and encouraging the parents to believe that their daughters will return.
Stephen, whose daughter, Hannah, is amongst the abducted girls, said: “We get such visits. Sometimes, they give us money and food items, but we tell them, all we want are our daughters.”
Looking at the faces of many of the parents, it was obvious that it would take more than preaching faith for them to keep hope alive.
For some of the parents of the kidnapped girls, the situation is now irredeemably hopeless as quite a number of them have died.
Pogu Bitrus, a Chibok community leader, disclosed that a total of 11 parents of the abducted girls have died of heart attack resulting from the frustration with the loss of their children.
“One father of two of the girls kidnapped apparently had his mind scrambled as he kept repeating the names of his daughters until life left him,” Bitrus said.
Chibok girls as suicide bombers?
While speaking to Festus Musa, a medical doctor and native of Chibok, he raised a fear that even he is not ready to broach with others in the community.
Musa expressed the fear that some of the schoolgirls kidnapped by insurgents might end up being used as suicide bombers by the Boko Haram.
“Imagine that these girls have been sold, others married off to Boko Haram fighters. Worse still, imagine that each female suicide bomber could be one’s daughter,” he said.
Musa’s fears might have been kindled by a recent development, which has seen children being used in suicide bomb attacks in the Northeast. Girls as young as 10 are believed to have been used in suicide bomb attacks on markets in Maiduguri, Borno State capital, and Damaturu, capital of Yobe State.
The explosive devices were strapped to the girls’ bodies and are believed to have been remotely detonated.
Anger at the President
When the icirnigeria.org returned to Chibok in January, the community was quaking with anger. The people’s ire had been raised by an unscheduled visit by the Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan to Maiduguri on January 15, ostensibly to identify with Nigerian troops on the Armed Forces Remembrance Day.
Chibok elders were infuriated that President Jonathan, who had failed to visit the mourning town since the kidnap of the girls last year, did not deem it fit to say anything about their missing wards.
Many people in Chibok and around the world had criticized the President for failing to show empathy with the Chibok people through a visit. It took a passionate appeal by Malala Yousafza, the Pakistani child rights activist, who visited President Jonathan in mid-July, 2014, to compel the President to agree to have an audience with a delegation from Chibok.
Those who attended the meeting on July 22, 2013, inside the Banquet Hall of the Presidential Villa, Abuja included 51 of the escaped girls, parents of escaped girls and those still in captivity as well as opinion and community leaders from Chibok.
The President assured that his government was doing everything possible to get back the girls.
But many of the girls’ parents and elders of Chibok who spoke to our reporter are not convinced that the President is sincere about making genuine efforts to find and rescue the girls.
They are also disappointed that in spite of special funds that were set up with the help of international donor agencies, not much has touched the lives of the people of the community, except for a few parents of the escaped girls.
Lydia Habila, mother of one of the girls, was scornful when she recalled the visit to the President by some parents in Abuja.
“We are told that there are people that are trying to make sure the government does not forget us, but when we selected some of us to go to Abuja, they came back sharing money. Have our daughters been sold,” she queried angrily.
There is also a spiritual angle to the pathetic story of the missing girls. In traditional Chibok society, the family of a deceased person mourns for several days, wearing sombre clothing and performing solemn rituals.
But here, like in many African cultures, you can only mourn the dead and for you to do that there must be a corpse.
The big dilemma of the Chibok people is that although they are in deep mourning, they cannot grieve properly because their daughters are, technically, missing, not dead. Without a corpse, they cannot perform the funeral rites that go with a lost one
So, for the people of this community, tradition is on hold and life cannot go on.
“Had it been our daughters were killed we would have since moved along. We cannot go on as if all is normal”, Habila observed, adding, “to know that somebody is alive, you need to see them.’
The Women of Chibok
Little was known about Chibok, a hilly town in Chibok local government, southern Borno State but it is a fascinating, picturesque community with a rich culture and a people with great deal of pride.
It has great potential, one of the reasons its secondary school was designated as a centre for WAEC exams when many other areas refused to take the extra burden.
However, every facet of life, including agriculture, the mainstay of the economy, has suffered these past few months. Terrorist attacks had impacted on the economy of the community before the kidnap saga as men and women stayed away from their farms for fear of attacks. That has worsened after the April 14, 2014 incident.
But the women are the most affected by it all. Apart from the emotional stress of the kidnap of so many of their daughters, meaning that they have fewer hands to help with household chores, they also have to bear a greater burden of the economic impact of the situation, being the ones responsible for providing the meals for their families.
Naturally, therefore, they are the most angry. Apart from the sense of loss that is noticeable among many of the women, also obvious is a sense of deprivation.
Jummai Madaki, a young Chibok woman, complained bitterly about a lack of equality for women in the community but is particularly angry because in spite of so many promises by both government and civil society organizations, no particular assistance has been given to women in Chibok to help them cope with their situation.
“You only hear about women in the news as body count and the human element of this conflict, while focus is on the military operation.” she lamented.
She continued: “The violence and suppression experienced by women in Chibok, has not been well documented. Some NGOs came in the early days and the government, through representatives, promised heaven but we cannot see even the earth. Instead, we have been attacked twice since.”
Another angry Chibok woman is Margaret Sule, who is in charge of one of the few small co-operatives in the town. She complained that at a time when the residents are mourning and need all the help they could get, people who came to the community were only interested in what they could get.
She lamented that the foreign journalists or researchers who have come to Chibok are only interested in “pictures and data of the missing Chibok schoolgirls”.
“There are things we cannot tell outsiders about, we have taboos, there are restrictions, we are grieving and people are insisting that we talk, how can we talk”? she wondered.
For Rehab Tashia, another Chibok mother, her grouse is what she calls the absolute abandonment of the people of Chibok, particularly by the state government.
She pointed out that despite no project has been sited in Chibok by the government or office of the First Lady in Maiduguri. She also said the state Miinstry of Women Affairs has launched no initiative to inspire the Chibok women.
“That is the reason why most of our girls take to education despite the risks and limited opportunities,” she explained.
Madaki’s anger is more global. Apparently referring to the #Bring Back Our Girls group that attracted international attention to the Chibok incident, she wondered how so much “noise” is being made in Abuja without it resulting in practical benefits for the people.
“There is no initiative for the purpose of women participation, we only hear of Chibok groups in Abuja,” she observed.
But while women like Madaki, Tashia and Sule complain of the government not doing much to help the people of Chibok get back to their feet, for parents like Hannatu’s mother, nothing else makes sense other than the return of their missing daughters.
By Charles Dickson
This project was supported by Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative reporting, ICIR.