The search for Nigeria's missing school girls

CNN's David McKenzie travels to the scene of last week's Boko Haram kidnapping attack in northern Nigeria, and meets people who managed to evade capture.

Posted: Mar 4, 2018 10:20 AM
Updated: Mar 4, 2018 10:20 AM

A clock ticking in a deserted dorm room. A solitary slipper strewn across the red earth. A girl's headscarf on the grass, rippling in the breeze.

These hastily discarded belongings are poignant reminders of the 110 girls who were abducted after armed Boko Haram militants stormed their school in Dapchi, northeastern Nigeria, last week.

There were more than 900 girls studying at the Government Girls Science and Technology College boarding school when the men, dressed in military gear, carried out the attack.

'We were terrified'

The signs of a hasty departure are all around this vast, rundown school. But it is in school's mosque that the signs of horror are most telling.

Hundreds of footprints on the floor here tell the story of a stampede, the rush to escape as gunshots rang out.

The men had arrived at dusk, as the schoolgirls were breaking their weekly Monday fast and saying their evening prayers.

The militants arrived in three cars and a truck, and told the schoolgirls to sit down in the courtyard, 15-year-old student Yagana Mustapha told CNN.

"They came while we were still at the mosque and then we heard the gunshots... we ran towards the gates and then ran out of the gates," she said.

In utter chaos, the girls fled in all directions, scaling walls and hiding in bushes as the men descended on them. Many believed the men were soldiers from the Nigerian army who had come to rescue them, and unknowingly ran toward their attackers.

"The attackers kept on telling others that we should go back. Some of us went back and then others ran into the bushes," Mustapha said.

"When we went back some of our teachers helped us to scale the fence and then we slept in a house outside of the school.

"We were terrified. Some of us just cried," she said.

'Soldiers don't wear flip-flops'

Zahra Bukar, 13, said she had taken medicine to her sick sister when she heard the gunshots started. The militants were able to abduct her sister right from her bed, she said.

Bukar was suspicious of the men's claims that they were soldiers because of their shoes.

"Soldiers don't wear flip-flops. They didn't have the proper footwear like soldiers," she said.

She told CNN that she initially thought the loud noises were from a transformer explosion.

"At first we didn't pay attention, then we heard the gunshot a second time and then our teachers began to gather us," she said.

"While we were gathering, the attackers got into the school so we had to run out of the school."

Some of the girls sat down as instructed by the armed men, Bukar said, before noticing the strange footwear and the Arabic inscriptions on the vehicles.

11 million children forced out of school

The school is on the outskirts of the small, dusty town of Dapchi. Incidentally, the leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau, is said to hail from Yobe State.

There is a military checkpoint outside the school now, but parents insist it should have been there long ago, especially since Boko Haram has targeted schools in the past.

Boko Haram's infamous abductions of 276 girls from the Chibok school in 2014 triggered global outrage and reignited the fight against the Islamist group, which had pledged its alliance to ISIS.

Parents of the kidnapped Dapchi girls are angry that the Nigerian army withdrew its troops in the area just 21 days before the attack.

The Nigerian army has released a statement saying it withdrew because the area seemed "relatively calm and peaceful."

"It is so sad and very miserable," says Alhaji Deri, one of the leaders of the newly formed association of the missing schoolgirls' parents.

Parents are refusing to send their daughters back to the school.

Boko Haram targets schools because it is virulently against Western-style education. Even the name Boko Haram loosely translates as "Western education is forbidden."

The group's horrific abuse of the Chibok girls is well known, but Boko Haram does not just target girls.

In February 2014, a few months before the Chibok girls were kidnapped, militants attacked a boys' school in Yobe State.

Fifty-eight boys were slaughtered as they slept, at the Federal Government College in Buni Yadi.

The group's insurgency in northeastern Nigeria has already forced 11 million children out of school.

About 1,400 schools have been destroyed in Borno state alone in the years of violence, according to recent UNICEF figures.

There are now fears that the number of children kept out of school will only rise after the Dapchi attack.

"Even those not abducted will not go back to that school again. Their lives are in danger. Who would go back?" Deri asked.

"My demand now is to see our children back. That is our demand. We are pleading for every single community, whether it is international, Nigerian, whoever, to rescue our children in a civil manner."

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