Families in Zamfara State, northwest Nigeria, desperately await news of their kidnapped daughters after more than 300 schoolgirls were taken by gunmen to a public school on Friday, the latest in a series mass kidnappings from schools to hit the country.
Some parents and other family members gathered at the girls’ boarding school in Jangebe village on Sunday amid rumors the children had regained their freedom after being held in a forest.
“There have been rumors that the girls have been found; the government denied them, but these rumors refuse to go away, ”said Ahmed Idris of Al Jazeera, reporting from the school.
As police coordinate a joint rescue operation with the military and helicopters roaming the forest, Idris said a number of government ministers arrived in Zamfara to meet with local officials. “Senior officials confirmed to Al Jazeera that 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 stormed the village early Friday morning before heading to the school hostel for the sleeping students.
Humaira Mustapha’s two daughters – Hafsa and Aisha, aged 14 and 13 respectively – were among the 317 schoolgirls abducted.
“Every time I think of my daughters, I am filled with indescribable grief,” Mustapha told AFP news agency, making no effort to wipe away the tears that were streaming down his cheeks.
“Every time I serve food to their younger sister, tears keep falling from my eyes because I keep thinking about the hunger and thirst they are going through,” the mother of three said. 30-year-olds.
“I call on the governor to do everything to save our daughters who are facing a real danger to their lives,” added Mustapha. “As a mother, my anguish crushes me.”
‘Afraid to go back to school’
Aliyu Ladan Jangebe said his five daughters, aged 12 to 16, were at school when the kidnappers stormed in. Four were taken away but one escaped hiding in a bathroom with three other girls, he told the Associated Press news agency.
“We are not [a] good mood because when you have five children and are able to have (just) one. We only thank God… But we are not happy, ”Jangebe said.
“We cannot imagine their situation,” he said of his missing daughters. Residents of a nearby village said the kidnappers drove the girls through the town like animals, he said.
Masauda Umar was among the schoolgirls who managed to escape. “I was coming out of the door and met someone, but I ran back and hid under my bed,” she said. “I’m afraid to go back to school because of what happened, but I will go back if the government provides security.”
A resident of the village said the gunmen also attacked a nearby military camp and checkpoint, preventing soldiers from responding to the mass kidnapping.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said the government’s priority is to bring back all hostages unharmed.
The kidnapping of the girls sparked international outrage, with the UN chief calling for the girls’ “immediate and unconditional release” and their 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 kidnapped on February 17 from Government Science College in Kagara in Niger state.
In December, more than 300 schoolchildren from a secondary school in Kankara, northwestern Nigeria, were taken away and released. The government said no ransom was paid for the release of the students.
The most notorious kidnapping took place in April 2014, when 276 girls were kidnapped by the armed group Boko Haram from Chibok secondary school in Borno state. More than 100 of these girls are still missing.
Boko Haram is opposed to Western education and its fighters often target schools. Other organized armed groups, known locally as bandits, often kidnap students for money. The government claims that large groups of gunmen in Zamfara state are known to kidnap for money and press for the release of their members held in prison.
Nigerian criminal networks could plot more such kidnappings if this round of kidnappings goes unpunished, analysts say.
“While improving community policing and security in general remains a challenge in the medium to long term, in the short term, authorities must punish those responsible to send a strong message that there will be no tolerance for towards such acts, ”said Rida Lyammouri, senior member of the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank.