Abuja, Nigeria - One month after the armed group Boko Haram kidnapped more than 300 girls from a boarding school in Chibok, the missing schoolgirls have yet to be found.
Five years of Boko Haram attacks in northeast Nigeria have severely hampered access to education in the region and, despite promises by the government to secure schools, attacks and killings continue.
In Nigeria - a country that boasts Africa's largest economy, population and oil reserves - more than 10.5 million children are out of the education system, and only four percent of girls in northern Nigeria complete secondary school.
The closure of schools across the northeast and the threat of attacks on students is further excluding those who are already marginalised.
They shot my father in front of me, but I was able to escape. My mother was not so lucky - she was locked in a room and the whole building was set on fire with her inside and two of my younger brothers.
"I vowed never to go to school again, because of the mass murder I witnessed," said Mary, a student at the now closed Askira Uba secondary school in Borno - a state terrorised by Boko Haram and the country's most dangerous region. For her safety, she asked that her real name not be published.
"My classmates were shot, some slaughtered like animals and set on fire," she said of the attack on the night of May 6.
Boko Haram made 14-year-old Mary an orphan after killing her entire family.
"They shot my father in front of me, but I was able to escape," she said. "My mother was not so lucky - she was locked in a room and the whole building was set on fire with her inside and two of my younger brothers. They all died."
Mary now lives with her uncle and goes to school kilometres away from her home, friends and former teachers. The memory of her parents makes her determined to complete her education.
"When I grow up I want to be a lecturer. I want to impart knowledge onto others in order to develop my state, where a lot of girls do not go to school," she said.
"My parents always advised me to be serious with my studies, they told me it is only when I become highly educated that I will be able to better my life and live a more fulfilled life than theirs."
Tormented by events
Boko Haram's attacks since early 2014 have been brutal and have targeted the most vulnerable. Remote villages, markets, hospitals, schools and children have borne the brunt of the attacks.
In the early hours of February 24, Boko Haram abducted an unknown number of female students in Buni Yadi village, Yobe state, and killed 43 boys.
Also in February, in Konduga, a village 35km from Maiduguri, the so-called birthplace of Boko Haram, gunmen abducted 20 female students from the Government Girls Science College and killed more than 53 people. Following that attack, the federal government closed five federal colleges in three states under a state of emergency order.
|Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau speaks from an unknown location [Reuters]
Joy, 17, was a student at the college in Konduga. She stays at home now, assisting her mother on the farm during the day instead of going to school.
"They killed a lot of people and burned down my school. Some of my friends were raped. I escaped," she told Al Jazeera, asking that her real name not be used for safety reasons.
Joy's daily journey to school used to involve trekking for two-and-a-half kilometres across difficult terrain. "In order to get to school on time, I would have to be on the road by 6:30am," she said. "My village was at the top of the hill, but I didn't care because I wanted to go to school. Education is the root of every aspect of human development."
Joy wants to continue studying and become a nurse. "I am inspired by the work I saw the doctors and nurses do when my school was attacked," she said. "I hope to assist my parents who are poor, and also my fellow human beings - especially the widows and the orphans in my town, who are victims of Boko Haram attacks."
Education against all odds
According to an Amnesty International report released last October, titled Nigeria: Keep away from schools or we'll kill you, the right to education is under attack in Nigeria. Between the beginning of 2012 until October 2013, at least 70 teachers and more than 100 students have been killed or wounded in northern Nigeria and thousands of children forced out of schools.
In Borno state, more than 800 classrooms have been burned down. In Yobe state, which has been in a state of emergency for nearly a year, 209 schools have been destroyed.
I will never forget my friends and teachers who were killed. I miss them deeply.
Those who can, have moved away to the relative safety of surrounding northern towns to continue their studies and live with extended family.
Fatima, 14, who gave only one name to protect herself from reprisals, moved in with extended family in Kaduna, a city not far from the capital Abuja, after a Boko Haram attack on her school. She told Al Jazeera she now feels safe.
"I enjoy my new school because there is peace here, no gunshot sounds, no explosives sounds," she said.
"There is no threat experienced by me here in my new school. But it is still painful for me and all of the other students and teachers who have been scattered because we were like a family, and now we have been forced to go our separate ways. I will never forget my friends and teachers who were killed. I miss them deeply."
She is still tormented by the events of her past. "From time to time, I think about what happened at my last school and when I see people that I don't know, especially men, I get scared and think about the terrible experience."
Despite the fear, Fatima is determined to be educated and become a doctor. Girls such as Mary, Joy and Fatima are part of a generation of young women and girls trying to secure an education against all odds, so that they can better the lives of themselves, their families and their country.
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