Distraught parents cling to hope, 100 days after Islamist rebels kidnapped nearly 300 of their daughters from a school in Borno state
Samuel Yaga was describing his missing daughter’s dream of becoming a doctor when the air went from his lungs. One hundred days after Sarah was abducted, the raw emotion still has a tendency to detonate unexpectedly. Could a child who would always fall asleep clutching a book survive so long in the grip of a sect whose opposition to western education has led them to burn schoolchildren alive, he wondered.
“It would be better if we had a body to bury,” he began, then took a deep, shaky breath.
He tried again: “It would be better if we had a body to bury. We’d have been able to cope. But she just disappeared without a trace and we have nothing, not even a body to mourn. This is the worst kind of pain.”
Countless families in north-eastern Nigeria are adrift in the same agonising limbo. Boko Haram has outgunned an overstretched and demoralised army, kidnapping girls and women, forcing boys into their ranks and razing entire villages in their quest to revive an Islamic caliphate. On 14 April, a decade of festering insurgency erupted in the mass abduction of almost 300 girls in Chibok, Borno state.
But the hunt to return the 219 girls still in captivity has also laid bare the staggering disconnect between Nigeria’s impoverished masses and its political elites who live in the palm-lined streets of the capital, Abuja. Despite a global #bringbackourgirls campaign that drew the support of such figures as Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie, it took President Goodluck Jonathan three months to meet any of the affected parents.
On Tuesday, he finally met 177 of the parents – but only after a highly publicised plea last week from Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani teenager who survived being shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012.
“Those whose daughters escaped, they were brought to meet Malala and the president. But most of us whose daughters are still missing, they told us that there’s no need for us to see the president,” said one parent, Enoch Mark, his voice shaking with anger. “I just don’t know why it has taken this long. I can’t describe how helpless we feel.”
Amid dwindling global and local attention, the parents have turned to a group who call themselves “The Abuja Family”. Decked in red shirts, the handful of supporters – mostly relatives – have tried to keep up the pressure with daily protests. In the face of threats and intimidation from the government, the campaigners have closed ranks against officials who have sometimes lashed out at the grieving clan.
“Until this meeting, no official had visited us. No official had asked us for our phone number,” said Samuel, a mechanic, whose scant earnings means he shares a single phone with his wife, Rebecca.
A few days earlier, the couple sat in the deserted park where supporters congregate each evening, doing their best to ignore security agents conspicuous in their ill-fitting suits on a blazing hot day. Rebecca opened her handbag and mutely handed over one of the pictures she now carries everywhere: Sarah dressed in white, her daughter pouting at the camera the way 18-year-olds do.
Sarah was seized with her best friend, Monica Mark, the daughter of a Christian pastor. (No relation to this reporter).
“Our only comfort is that she was with her best friend. Those two were always together,” said Rebecca.
“You never saw one child without the other,” Samuel added. They lapsed into silence as a security official passed within earshot.
Even before the mass abduction, horrors had become commonplace in northern Nigeria. Barely a week into the new year, Boko Haram razed four villages in Borno state, where the sect’s black flag flies across swaths of territory.
Then came the night of 14 January, when the Yagas awoke to the sound of gunfire in their village of Banki. Terrified, the parents and six siblings piled into one room and prayed the shooting wouldn’t reach them. Sarah cradled her three-year-old brother.
At dawn, the family learned the insurgents had first mortared the police station, then gone house to house slitting resident’s throats. “There was so much blood, blood everywhere,” Samuel recalled.
They had seen enough. Samuel ordered the family to pack their belongings – they would head to safety in the capital, Abuja, where his wife’s sister lived. But Sarah, two months away from taking the exams needed to go to medical school, begged to be allowed to stay.
Pretty and studious, Sarah was their first surviving child after a miscarriage and a stillbirth. They named her after the Hebrew matriarch whose pleas for a child were eventually answered. “She was born six days before Christmas so the celebrations lasted all week. We were celebrating two Christmases.”
Almost all the earnings from the jewel-coloured fabrics Rebecca sewed went to paying Sarah’s school fees; so too the meagre salary from Samuel’s mechanic shop. “We didn’t mind because we knew Sarah was brilliant enough to succeed. We felt blessed,” said Rebecca, pulling out another family picture in which a smiling Sarah leans her head against her mother’s shoulder, her younger siblings crowing around them.
Reluctantly but with pride, Sarah was dropped at school before the family migrated south. The vice-principal advised them to let Sarah pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.
The last thing Samuel said before they left was to promise that even if they had to sell the clothes off their backs he and Rebecca would put their daughter through university.
“Sarah was almost dancing with joy,” her mother recalled. “She was so happy.”
She hugged both parents before they left. The last they saw of her, she was running to tell her best friend Monica the good news.
The Yagas are the lucky ones. The Rev Enoch Mark, Monica’s father, has nowhere to take the remnants of his family.
Since the abductions, a triangle of villages around Chibok have been pummelled by near-daily Boko Haram gunfire. This week, 15,000 villagers are on the run after a weekend of savage attacks where, witnesses said, the insurgents again slit their victims’ throats to save on using bullets. Under-equipped soldiers have struggled to defend villages scattered hundreds of miles across daunting semi-desert terrain in Borno state, leaving traumatised communities to cope as best as they can.
Each night Mark joins a stream of residents who trek into the surrounding hills for safety. Many villagers no longer sleep at night so there is always a lookout. Some have bought locally made muskets for $25 (£20) apiece.
“We sleep in the bush whether there is rain, wind or harmattan [dust storms]. The little ones don’t sleep well. When people who used to know us see us, they’re shocked. We’re completely … hollow,” he said, groping for the right word.
Mark has become a vociferous critic of the government’s seeming inaction. But there are days when he thinks time is deepening rather than healing his pain, and wonders what it all means. “If they bring our girls back, what will they come back to? We can’t go to our farms because of Boko Haram. We can’t transact business because of them. The only reason I haven’t run far away is because of my daughter. I must be here when she comes back.”
The most secure he has felt for months, he said, was when an armed official delegation met the parents on their arrival in the capital ahead of this week’s presidential meeting. During the four-hour discussion, Mark stood up to address the dignitaries who sat on a podium.
He described villagers under siege. Close to half of Chibok’s population has left this year. On one occasion, soldiers fled when he went to warn them of an attack. Women are being forced at gunpoint to convert and wear veils. Old men, young boys and policemen with too little ammunition were left to confront the heavily armed extremists.
“Every day girls are being kidnapped in the north-east. Yet our communities can’t move forwards if we don’t even know if they’re alive,” he finished.
The president replied that their children were still alive and would be brought back home soon, Mark said. The words sent a tremor of hope through him.
But back in the quiet of his hotel, Mark was less certain. “Until we see the president’s words in action, I shouldn’t leave my family alone in Chibok,” he added.
In the capital, another battle is taking place. Weeks earlier, somebody paid to erect 30 mobile campaign billboards for the president’s expected 2015 re-election bid surround the park where the Abuja Family gathers. Two giant screens now flash pro-Jonathan messages, while the president’s face beams down from three hot-air balloons.
“We understand what they’re trying to do. Everything they have tried to do to stop us since doesn’t shake us,” said Hosiah Lawan, a village elder who co-ordinates the rallies. This includes arrests, denials from Jonathan’s wife that the abductions had happened, claims that the sit-ins are an opposition-funded smear campaign, and calls to ban their rallies on the pretext that they might be infiltrated by insurgents.
At one point, a group bussed in by the government smashed plastic chairs and overturned food trays as the campaigners sang and prayed.
“They’ve even accused us of corruption because we sell badges,” Lawan laughed, although an edge of hysteria was unmistakeable.
Rebecca, Sarah’s mother, didn’t get a chance to speak at the presidential meeting. But her thoughts were echoed by everyone else who did, she said. She was hopeful that officials would finally be moved to do something. “I want my family to be able to sleep again. I just lie awake every night thinking how I used to find Sarah with her book in bed. I’d say, ‘look how you’ve fallen asleep with your book again’.”
Sarah would open her eyes and pick up the book again. “I’m not sleeping,” she would always reply.
Source: Monica Mark The Guardian