Nigeria waits for its kidnapped girls: ‘This is the worst kind of pain’

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 detonates unexpectedly. Could a child who always fell asleep clutching a book survive 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 shaky breath. He tried again: “We would 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 northeastern 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 villages in their quest for an Islamic caliphate. On April 14, a festering insurgency erupted in the mass abduction of nearly 300 girls in Chibok, Borno state.

Staggering disconnect
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 elites in the palm-lined streets of the capital Abuja. Despite a global #bringbackourgirls campaign, 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 shot 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 there’s no need for us to see the president,” said one parent, the Reverend Enoch Mark, his voice shaking with anger. “I 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 from the government, the campaigners have closed ranks against officials who have lashed out at the grieving clan.

“Until this meeting, no official had visited us,” said Yaga and his wife, Rebecca.

A few days earlier, the couple sat in the deserted park where supporters meet each evening, doing their best to ignore security agents conspicuous in their ill-fitting suits.

Rebecca mutely handed over a picture of Sarah dressed in white. Sarah was seized with her best friend Monica Mark, 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, before she and her husband lapsed into silence as a security official passed.

Even before the abduction, horrors were commonplace in northern Nigeria. Barely a week into the new year, Boko Haram razed four villages in Borno, where the sect’s black flag flies across swaths of territory.

Then on January 14, the Yagas awoke to the sound of gunfire in their village. Terrified, the parents and six children piled into one room. Sarah cradled her three-year-old brother. At dawn, the family learnt the insurgents had first mortared the police station, then gone house to house slitting residents’ throats.

“There was so much blood, blood everywhere,” Yaga recalled.

They had seen enough. The family headed to the capital Abuja, where Rebecca’s sister lived. But Sarah, two months away from the examinations needed to go to medical school, begged to stay.

Pretty and studious, Sarah was their first surviving child after a miscarriage and a stillbirth. “She was born six days before Christmas so the celebrations lasted all week.”

Almost all the earnings from fabrics Rebecca sewed went to paying Sarah’s school fees; so too the meagre salary from Yaga’s mechanic shop.

“We didn’t mind because we knew Sarah was brilliant enough to succeed. We felt blessed,” said Rebecca.

Reluctantly, but with pride, Sarah was dropped off at school before the family migrated south. The last thing Yaga 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.” The last they saw of her, she was running to tell her best friend Monica the good news.

The Yagas are lucky. The Reverend Mark, Monica’s father, has nowhere to take his family. Since the abductions, villages around Chibok have been pummelled by near-daily Boko Haram gunfire. This week, 15 000 villagers were on the run after savage attacks. Witnesses said the insurgents slit their victims’ throats to save bullets. Under-equipped soldiers struggle to defend villages scattered hundreds of kilometres across semi-desert terrain, leaving communities to cope as they could.

Each night, Mark joins residents who trek into the surrounding hills for safety. Many villagers no longer sleep at night; there is always a lookout. Some buy locally made muskets for R400 apiece.

“We sleep in the bush whether there is rain, wind or harmattan. The little ones don’t sleep well. When people who used to know us see us, they’re shocked. We’re … hollow,” he said, groping for the right word.

Mark has become a vociferous critic of the state’s seeming inaction. But there are days when he thinks time is deepening, rather than healing, his pain.

“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 on a podium.

He described villagers under siege. Half of Chibok’s population has left. Soldiers fled when he warned them of an attack. Women are being forced at gunpoint to convert and wear veils. Old men, boys and policemen with too little ammunition confront the extremists.

“Every day girls are being kidnapped. Our communities can’t move forward if we don’t even know if they’re alive,” he finished.

The president replied that their children were still alive and would be home soon, Mark said. The words sent a tremor of hope through him.

But back in 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.

Re-election bid
In the capital, another battle is taking place. 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 his face beams down from hot-air balloons.

“Everything they have tried to do to stop us since doesn’t shake us,” said Hosiah Lawan, a village elder. 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.

State supporters smashed chairs and overturned food trays as the campaigners sang and prayed.

“They’ve even accused us of corruption because we sell badges,” Lawan laughed, though an edge of hysteria was unmistakable.

Sarah’s mother didn’t get a chance to speak at the presidential meeting. But she was hopeful that officials would be moved to do something.

“I want my family to be able to sleep again. I just lie awake every night thinking how I’d find Sarah with her book in bed. I’d say, ‘you’ve slept with your book again’.”

Sarah would open her eyes and pick up the book again. “I’m not sleeping,” she would always reply. – © Guardian News & Media 2014

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