DAPCHI, Nigeria (AP) — The sound of gunfire rang out as residents gathered for evening prayers at the mosque. Soon the armed fighters showed up in their trucks and made their target clear: Where was the girls’ school, they asked.
Usman Katarko, a farmer, said he knew the men were not soldiers even though they wore military uniforms because there were Arabic inscriptions on their vehicles.
“I heard them shouting: ‘Show us where the school is! Show us where the girls’ school is!'” he told The Associated Press. “When they eventually found the school, they abducted more than 90 girls. Most of them are our friends’ and brothers’ daughters.”
Now parents say 101 schoolgirls are missing after the Boko Haram assault Monday evening, presenting Nigeria’s government with its most wrenching challenge since the Chibok mass abduction of 276 schoolgirls in 2014 that shocked the world.
“This is a national disaster,” President Muhammadu Buhari said Friday evening on Twitter.
Conflicting reports added to the confusion Friday over the fate of the young women who attended the boarding school in the northern village of Dapchi.
“On the issue of the number of missing girls, we cannot give what we are not sure of … Give us a few more time, please,” urged Nigerian Information Minister Lai Muhammed, who visited the town by helicopter on Thursday.
Confusion and a slow federal government response to the Chibok abductions ultimately led to an international “Bring Back Our Girls” movement that pressured Nigeria’s leaders to make rescuing the schoolgirls a priority.
While many of the Chibok girls escaped or were later freed through government negotiations, about 100 of the girls were said to be indoctrinated by their captors and had children with them. Those young women now seem lost forever to their families, unwilling to return home nearly four years later.
Nigeria’s government has repeatedly declared that Boko Haram is all but defeated after an eight-year insurgency that has spread into neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad and displaced millions of people.
The declarations continued this week, even after the Dapchi attack.
“They have been starved out of oxygen, and the oxygen they feed on is publicity so that they can grab the world’s attention. But I can assure you that with the determination of our gallant military, the days of Boko Haram are numbered,” the information minister said.
While some of the Dapchi girls may still be in hiding, hope is fading with each day they do not return, especially given the multiple eyewitness accounts of students being taken away at gunpoint during the chaos on Monday.
“Some of my colleagues were trapped and caught by the insurgents and were taken away,” said 13-year-old Fatima Bako, who managed to hide.
Sanusi Muhammadu is still waiting for word of his 14-year-old daughter, Aisha. He said that after some girls were found hiding in the bush, the parents were asked to come at 2 p.m. on Tuesday to collect them. Aisha was not there.
The following day, news broke that the attackers had been intercepted in a nearby town and that some girls had been rescued. That report later proved to be false, adding to his heartbreak.
“We were all happy on Wednesday night when the news broke that some of the girls had been rescued in Geidam town. But here we are, the same government is now saying that no girl has been rescued,” he said.
“But the government has a duty to rescue our daughters. It is the responsibility of government to get our daughters returned home to us safely because we put them in school believing that they are under the protection of government,” he added.
On Thursday, parents sobbed after Yobe state governor Ibrahim Gaidam urged them to “intensify prayers” as Nigerian security operatives continued searching the bush for survivors.
“I urge you to be patient as we are not resting,” he said.
Larson reported from Dakar, Senegal.
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