Families in northwest Nigeria’s Zamfara state are desperately waiting for news of their kidnapped daughters after more than 300 schoolgirls were taken by gunmen from a government school on Friday, the latest in a series of mass school abductions to hit the country.
Some parents and other relatives on Sunday gathered at the all-girls boarding school in the Jangebe village amid speculation that the children had regained their freedom after being held in a forest.
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“There have been rumours flying around that the girls have been found; the government denied them but these rumours refuse to go away,” Al Jazeera’s Ahmed Idris, reporting from the school, said.
With police coordinating a joint rescue operation with the military and helicopters combing the forest, Idris said a number of government ministers had arrived in Zamfara to meet local officials. “Senior officials confirmed to Al Jazeera that some progress has been made and [expressed hope] in the next 24 hours the girls will be back home,” Idris added.
Locals say more than 100 gunmen in military uniforms invaded the village early on Friday morning before heading to the school’s hostel for the sleeping students.
Humaira Mustapha’s two daughters – Hafsa and Aisha, 14 and 13 respectively – were among the 317 schoolgirls abducted.
“Whenever I think about my daughters I’m filled with indescribable grief,” Mustapha told AFP news agency, making no effort to wipe away the tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Whenever I serve food to their younger sister, tears keep flowing from my eyes because I keep thinking about the hunger and thirst they are going through,” said the 30-year-old mother of three.
“I’m appealing to the governor to do everything to rescue our daughters who are facing real danger to their lives,” Mustapha added. “As a mother, my anguish is crushing me.”
‘Scared of going back to school’
Aliyu Ladan Jangebe said his five daughters aged between 12 and 16 were at the school when the kidnappers stormed in. Four were taken away but one escaped by hiding in a bathroom with three other girls, he told The Associated Press news agency.
“We are not in [a] good mood because when you have five children and you are able to secure (just) one. We only thank God … But we are not happy,” said Jangebe.
“We cannot imagine their situation,” he said of his missing daughters. Residents of a nearby village said the kidnappers had herded the girls through the town like animals, he said.
Masauda Umar was among the schoolgirls who managed to escape. “I was coming out from the door and I met somebody but ran back and hid under my bed,” she said. “I’m scared of going back to school because of what happened, but I will go back if the government makes it safe.”
One resident at the village said the gunmen also attacked a nearby military camp and checkpoint, preventing soldiers from responding to the mass abduction.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said the government’s priority is to get all the hostages returned safe and unharmed.
The girls’ abduction has caused international outrage, with the United Nations chief calling for the girls’ “immediate and unconditional release” and safe return to their families.
Nigeria has seen several such attacks and kidnappings in recent years. On Saturday, 24 students, six staff and eight relatives were released after being abducted on February 17 from the Government Science College Kagara in Niger state.
In December, more than 300 schoolboys from a secondary school in Kankara, in northwestern Nigeria, were taken and later released. The government has said no ransom was paid for the students’ release.
The most notorious kidnapping was in April 2014, when 276 girls were abducted by the Boko Haram armed group from the secondary school in Chibok in Borno state. More than 100 of those girls are still missing.
Boko Haram is opposed to Western education and its fighters often target schools. Other organised armed groups, locally called bandits, often abduct students for money. The government says large groups of armed men in Zamfara state are known to kidnap for money and to press for the release of their members held in jail.
Nigeria’s criminal networks may plot more such abductions if this round of kidnappings go unpunished, say analysts.
“While improving community policing and security, in general, remains a mid-to-long-term challenge, in the short term authorities must punish those responsible to send a strong message that there will be zero tolerance toward such acts,” said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan-based think-tank.