Nigeria: Despair After Gunmen Kidnap Nearly 300 Students

(AP) – Rashidat Hamza is in despair. All but one of her six children are among the nearly 300 students abducted from their school in Nigeria’s northwest, riddled with Islamic extremists and armed gangs.

It has been more than two days after her children – ages seven to 18 – went to school in the remote town of Kuriga in Kaduna state only to be kidnapped by gunmen. She was still in shock.

Authorities said at least 100 children age 12 or younger were among the abductees in the state known for violent killings, lawlessness, and dangerous roads where people get regularly snatched.

“We don’t know what to do, but we believe in God,” Hamza told The Associated Press (AP) during a visit to the town.

The mass kidnapping in Kuriga was the third in northern Nigeria since last week; a group of gunmen abducted 15 children from a school in another northwestern state, Sokoto, before dawn on Saturday; and a few days earlier, 200 people, mostly women and children displaced by conflict, were kidnapped in northeastern Borno State.

The kidnappings are a stark reminder of the security crisis plaguing Africa’s most populous country.

No group claimed responsibility for any of the recent abductions. But Islamic extremists waging an insurgency in the northeast are suspected of carrying out the kidnapping in Borno. Locals blame the school abductions on herders who are in conflict with the settled communities.

NOT THE FIRST TIME

It’s not the first time for a student kidnapping in Nigeria to shock the world. In 2014, Islamic extremists abducted more than 200 schoolgirls from Borno’s Chibok, sparking the global #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign. A decade later, at least 1,400 Nigerian students have so far been abducted from their schools in similar circumstances. Some are still held captive, including nearly 100 of the Chibok girls.

Recalling Thursday’s kidnapping, Nura Ahmad, a teacher, told the AP that students were just settling into their classrooms at the government primary and secondary school when gunmen “came in dozens, riding on bikes and shooting sporadically”.

The LEA Primary and Secondary School, one of the few educational facilities in this area, sits by the road just at the entrance of the town, tucked in the middle of forests and savannah.

“They surrounded the school and blocked all passages … and roads” to prevent help from coming before kidnapping the children in less than five minutes, Ahmad said.

Fourteen-year-old Abdullahi Usman braved gunshots to escape the captors.

“Those who refused to move fast were either forced on the motorcycles or threatened by gunshots fired into the air,” Abdullahi said. “The bandits were shouting: ‘Go! Go! Go!’” he said.

Nigerian police and soldiers headed into the forests on Friday to search for the missing children, but combing the wooded expanses could take weeks, observers said.

“Since this happened, my brain has been muddled,” said Shehu Lawal, the father of a 13-year-old boy who is among those abducted.

“My child didn’t even eat breakfast before leaving. His mother fainted (upon hearing the news),” he said.

Some villagers like Lawan Yaro, whose five grandchildren are among the abducted, say their hopes are already fading.

People are used to the region’s insecurity, “but it has never been in this manner”, he said.

“We are crying, looking for help from the government and God, but it is the gunmen that will decide to bring the children back,” Yaro said. “God will help us.”

Nigeria’s military continues to conduct air raids and special military operations in the region, as well as respond to pockets of crisis across the country, but is fatigued by the 14-year Islamist insurgency in the northeast. Armed gangs also keep on multiplying in the region, where many are poor and often work with extremists seeking to expand their operations.

The military previously said that sometimes kidnap victims were used as “human shields” to prevent aerial bombardments of the forests where their captors hide.