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In Town Of Missing Girls, Sorrow, But Little Progress (New York Times)




The women surged forward, anguish creasing their faces. Many were crying. A collective wail went up, but the officials traveling with the visiting local dignitary pushed them back, shushing them so he could speak.

Mutely, the mothers of Chibok bent their heads, clasped their hands tightly and knelt Sunday on the grounds of the burned-out ruins of Chibok Government Girls Secondary School, their sobs subsiding after a brief moment on this overcast but stifling afternoon.

Their daughters were kidnapped from this desolate place and taken into the surrounding sandy scrub nearly four weeks ago by the Islamist sect Boko Haram. As many as 276 girls here were taken. Although about 50 escaped, not a single one of the remaining girls has been found, and despite international offers of help, the Nigerian government has been slow to act.

The town of Chibok, deep in the bush of northeastern Nigeria and down the most Boko Haram-dense road in the country, is gripped by fear and pain, several said.

“We are deeply in sorrow,” said Mary Dawa, whose 16-year-old daughter, Hawa Isha, is missing. “Every day, I am in deep sorrow. I don’t even feel like eating.”


Asked how she was coping, she said, “How can I start?” Behind her the dignitary, the elderly traditional ruler of the region, made a 10-minute speech of mumbled condolence, sitting under a tree.

He did not rise to meet with the women. After his brief speech he was off, guarded by police officers and soldiers.

The officials in the town, though — some of whom say they warned security services of the impending attack on April 14, to no avail — feel their constituents’ pain acutely. “These are small girls who are used to seeing their parents every morning,” said Zanna Madu Mai Usman Chibokma, an official in Chibok. “Now they are in the bush. What conditions are they being subjected to?”

There are widespread fears that the girls are being forcibly married off, exacerbated by a video released last week in which the group’s apparent leader called them slaves and threatened to “sell them in the market” and “marry them out” rather than let them get educations.

To travel the road here — much of it an ungraded dirt track that throws up dense dust clouds — from the state capital, Maiduguri, 80 miles away, is to understand how vulnerable this school was. The road is punctuated by the shells of other schools burned by Boko Haram; the carcasses of cars the militants attacked; and empty villages, their buildings also destroyed, whose residents have fled.


Little traffic roams this road; the Nigerian police say the Islamists still lurk in the surrounding bush. The military presence is light. There is an occasional checkpoint — in Damboa, a half-hour drive away on the dirt road, there is a military base, but its men did not engage with the kidnappers. This area, for hundreds of miles around, has been under siege by Boko Haram for five years, with no movement toward resolution.

For the government in Abuja, despite a defense budget of more than $5 billion, the fight against the Islamists has been a problem occurring somewhere else, even though more than 1,500 people died in the violence the first three months of this year alone, according to Amnesty International.

The contrast on view here Sunday — between the mothers’ sorrow and the light response of some Nigerian officials — has helped ignite a worldwide movement of solidarity and protest on behalf of the women here. It took President Goodluck Jonathan nearly three weeks to address the issue publicly. The mothers seemed only dimly aware of the international efforts or protests, though, and not much comforted. Their daughters are still missing.

“I’m not happy at all,” said Yana Galang, the mother of 16-year-old Rifka. “She’s in the bush. I don’t know where she is right now.” The girl had recently been recovering in a clinic after surgery for appendicitis, and had come to the school only to take an exam, she said.

The United States, Britain and France have all pledged to lend their expertise in the search for the girls, who were probably taken into the Sambisa Forest, the forbidding, dense scrub that abuts this isolated dot on the map. Counterterrorism experts from all these countries have begun to arrive in Nigeria.


The international effort broadened on Sunday, with Israel offering help and President François Hollande of France suggesting a summit with Nigeria and its neighbors focused on Boko Haram.

The governor of this state, Kashim Shettima, one of the few officials who raised the alarm early and loud, believes the abducted girls are still in the forest, and have not been taken across borders into neighboring Chad and Cameroon, though others disagree.

Mr. Shettima said there were indications they might have been divided into groups and told the BBC about reports of their being sighted “in some locations.” He did not elaborate, saying the reports had been passed on to the military authorities to check.

Desperate parents have entered the forest themselves, armed only with bows and arrows. Officials say the military is searching there but there have been no results so far.

The government has revealed little of its strategy beyond — unusually — accepting offers of international help, which it had consistently rejected over the course of the years of Boko Haram insurgency.


Culled from New York Times

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