UNICEF report highlights increase in the number of children, mostly girls, used by armed group in the Lake Chad region.
Abuja, Nigeria – Enoch Mark shuffles along the main corridor in his apartment in a busy neighbourhood in the Nigerian capital.
He walks with a slight limp and has a stiff upper lip after a massive stroke last year. This is just one of the many ailments he’s suffered from in the past three years since two of his daughters were abducted by the Boko Haram armed group from their high school in the northeastern town of Chibok.
“I lost my two daughters. I lost my peace. I lost my job,” he says. He perches on a balcony, overlooking the street below where a handful of people gather outside a church. After a while, Mark sighs.
“Time will tell. They will be free one day one time. I’m still hopeful. I’m still hopeful.”
To date, the Nigerian government has not found any of the 276 schoolgirls who were abducted by Boko Haram on April 15, 2014. Fifty-seven of them escaped on their own. Three more were found by locals. With the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Swiss government, the Nigerian government were able to secure the release of 21 girls last year. But that’s not enough, Mark says.
“If [President] Buhari will be sincere with himself, why can’t he put this insurgency under control?” Mark asks. “How many girls has his government rescued among the Chibok girls? If he will tell himself the truth, does he really mean business as the president of Nigeria?”
Despite claims from the Nigerian government that Boko Haram has been defeated, the group continues to commit atrocities. According to Human Rights Watch, since the group began its attacks in 2009, an estimated 10,000 civilians have died in Nigeria as a result. A recent report from UNICEF indicates that nearly one in five suicide bombers used by Boko Haram in the past two years has been a child. Girls continue to be used in high numbers to carry out attacks.
Video footage released by Boko Haram shows its members stoning people, cutting off body parts and burning down buildings.
Mark says he was worried that the militants had even beheaded one of his abducted daughters.
“It was a rumour that was going around, that my daughter had been beheaded because she refused to denounce her Christian faith,” he says.
He requests not to name his daughters for security reasons. But he says one of the 21 Chibok girls who were released last year through negotiations assured him that his daughters are still alive.
As daylight wanes, Mark goes to his room to bring out his Bible. It’s heavy, leather-bound with fraying pages. Every evening he reads from it with his wife.
This evening, he reads one of his favourite passages, Psalm 23:4.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no Boko Haram,” he says in a booming voice, substituting “evil” for “Boko Haram”.
On the other side of town, Esther Yakubu prepares a meal for her children. Her daughter, Dorcas Yakubu, is one of the missing girls. In one of Boko Haram’s videos released last year, Dorcas appeared, standing next to a masked man in army fatigues, and pleaded for the government to meet Boko Haram’s demands so that she and her friends would be released.
Yakubu says Dorcas was the light of her life.
“I have not been the same without her,” she says. Seeing her daughter in the video gave her a sense of relief that she may still be alive.
On a Tuesday afternoon, Aisha Yesufu rouses up a crowd of activists from the Bring Back Our Girls group. Yesufu has become a familiar face in the group. They gathered on a pavement earlier this week in the affluent Abuja community known as Asokoro and chanted on the street corner as cars passed.
Bring Back Our Girls has kept the campaign going, but the group has become smaller.
“Buhari is not doing us any favours by telling us he will rescue our girls. No, that is not a favour. That is his job as the president of Nigeria,” Yesufu shouts, holding up a mic.
Members of the group say they strive to be a voice for the parents of the missing schoolgirls. It’s been a difficult three years for the parents. Since the mass abduction of the schoolgirls, Boko Haram has attacked Chibok again at least twice.
Nineteen parents of Chibok girls have since died, having not been able to see their daughters again.
Martha, Mark’s wife, tries to manage her emotional stress but it’s taking a toll.
“I have hypertension and some ulcers and other sickness in my body, so the thing is paining me seriously,” she says, speaking softly in pidgin English.
She makes her way over to the church for women’s choir practice. She says participating in church activities helps her forget her sorrows.
Her family is doing the best they can to continue with life. But every day is a struggle, especially after Mark’s stroke.
Their 12-year-old daughter, Hannatu, worries that she may forget what her sisters looked like. Ruth, who is 16, still suffers from a hip injury from when she ran away from Boko Haram the same night her sisters were kidnapped.
The family has heard the Nigerian government’s announcement this week that it is negotiating for the release of the rest of the Chibok girls.
But, they’ve grown weary of hearing this claim time and again.
“Buhari has not delivered in his promises,” Mark says. “It is a great disappointment to us all. If he cannot find the girls, he should leave the presidential office to make room for someone who can.”