CALABAR, Nigeria—Just weeks after the Nigerian army announced once again that “Boko Haram terrorists have been defeated,” the military is trying to cope with a crime that echoes the infamous abduction of “the Chibok girls” in 2014.
On Monday night Boko Haram stormed the Government Girls Science Secondary (GGSS) school at Dapchi town in northeastern Yobe state. According to local reports, jihadists dressed in military fatigues and turbans arrived in trucks mounted with heavy caliber weapons, shooting sporadically, and headed to the hostel at the state-run boarding school for girls aged 11 and above.
“They were shooting in the air and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ [‘God is great’], as they approached the school,” Ali Modu, who lives nearby, told The Daily Beast. “The gunshots lasted for up to an hour.”
Five days after the attack took place, the whereabouts of many schoolgirls are still unknown, raising fears of a repeat of the 2014 Chibok kidnappings that provoked global outrage and a media campaign centered around the hashtag #bringbackourgirls.
In this case, one Yobe schoolgirl, Aisha Yusuf Abdullahi, told AFP that she was lucky to escape. She and others spent the entire night in hiding after running to the principal's office. Of the others, she said, she has “every reason to suspect that they were taken away by the attackers.”
"We were in the mosque and about to start evening prayers when we heard gunshots. We rushed out and ran towards the gate. It was closed," 16-year-old Abdullahi said. "Out of panic, some climbed the fence to waiting vehicles outside and just jumped in, not knowing whose vehicles they were.”
“We have not heard from those who entered the vehicles outside the school,” Abdullahi added. “We have the feeling they were taken by the gunmen."
A member of the Dapchi community told The Daily Beast that he saw six trucks drive past with many people in the bed of each vehicle.
“It looked like they were people the militants had picked up from somewhere,” the community member said. “There were girls among them, but it was dark, so I couldn’t see their faces.”
An eyewitness said the militants that invaded Dapchi “were total strangers” who had to force some of the residents to show them the way around the community.“They did not even know where the school GGSS is located,” said Abubakar Muhammed, who spoke to Premium Times, a Nigerian newspaper. “When they eventually located the school, they moved in, captured many of our daughters and left without anyone confronting them.”
Another community source told Sahara Reporters that at least four bodies of students were recovered from the bush in the nearby town of Kusur.
A school security guard said the gunmen tried to stop the girls from fleeing and tricked them into believing they had come to rescue them.
"Some of the girls believed them and climbed up into the lorry,” the guard, who gave his name as Baa-Koro, told AFP. “Many others just kept running."
As it was with the Chibok kidnappings, it took more than a day after the attack took place for the incident to be reported. Even at that, there was confusion over the exact number of schoolgirls missing after the invasion.
Ibrahim Gaidam, governor of Yobe state, said more than 50 were still missing, while the police commissioner of the state, Abdulmaliki Sumonu, said 111 remain unaccounted for.
"Eight hundred and fifteen students returned to the school and were visibly seen, out of 926 in the school," Sumonu told reporters in the state capital, Damaturu, on Wednesday. "The rest are missing."
The Yobe state government announced late on Wednesday that some of the missing girls had been “rescued by gallant officers and men of the Nigerian Army from the terrorists who abducted them” and “are now in the custody of the Nigerian Army.” But the press statement which was released by a spokesperson for Governor Gaidam turned out to be false.
In a retraction issued on Thursday, the government said it relied on information from “one of the security agencies that is involved in the fight against Boko Haram,” and has now established that it “was not credible.”
In Dapchi, Yobe Governor Geidam met with some parents of the missing students on Thursday for the first time since the Boko Haram attack. When he told them that the schoolgirls had not been found after all, five of the parents present reportedly fainted.
"He said noone is really sure whether the girls were taken away by Boko Haram,” one parent, Kundiri Alhaji Bukar, told BBC Hausa. “We on our part, we believe Boko Haram abducted the children."
Inuwa Mohammed, whose 16-year-old daughter, Falmata, is among those missing, told AFP that he was "devastated by this twist of events" and news that the rescue of the schoolgirls was false caused his wife to faint. She was hospitalized.
"I woke up with the strong hope of meeting my daughter,” Mohammed said. “My wife had been making preparations for a warm welcome, only for us to receive this shattering news that all along the story has been a rumour."
Groups of youths, who were angry that the schoolgirls had not been rescued after all hurled stones at the Governor Gaidam’s motorcade, smashing the windscreens of a couple of vehicles. Soldiers and policemen were forced to constantly chase rioters who burned car tyres and set up barricades in the streets.
The Nigerian military yet to officially speak on the terror attack in Dapchi, but a senior army official told The Daily Beast privately that the military believes schoolgirls were kidnapped by Boko Haram. Initial reports suggested that the girls fled with some of their teachers when the militants began to fire their weapons.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari said on Friday that the “government is sending more troops and surveillance aircraft to keep an eye on all movements in the entire territory on a 24-hour basis, in the hope that all the missing girls will be found.” A delegation he dispatched to Yobe state to “ascertain the situation” said it had no information about the missing schoolgirls.
"As things develop we will let you know,” Information Minister Lai Mohammed, who led the delegation, told reporters in Dapchi. “We cannot categorically say, 'x number of girls have been abducted'. But we can say that not all have returned."
Boko Haram gained worldwide notoriety when its militants kidnapped 276 girls from their dormitory in the town of Chibok, in neighboring Borno state, nearly four years ago. Not long after the attack, 57 escaped, and 107 have either escaped from captivity or been released as part of a deal brokered by the government. More than a hundred are still believed to be held by the militants.
The Dapchi attack “draws dreadful and eerie similarities with the confusion that surrounded official communication following the abduction of our #ChibokGirls,” Bring Back Our Girls, a group advocating for the release of the Chibok schoolgirls said in a statement. “How is it that a terrorist group said to have been defeated [was] able to abduct in the range of 100 schoolgirls?”
There's no news yet from any source concerning the whereabouts of the Dapchi students and, even if there was, it will take a lot for family members of victims to believe what is reported, more so because there have been so many conflicting reports regarding the incident since it became public on Tuesday.
“We will not celebrate any news of their rescue until we see [the girls] physically,” an official in the Yobe state education ministry, whose has a relative among those missing, told The Daily Beast. “Don’t forget that in the case of the Chibok girls, it was announced a number of times that some of them had been rescued, but it turned out to be false.”