No one knows exactly how many children were abducted but suddenly 344 of the abducted boys were released on Thursday
A father is reunited with his son in Katsina Nigeria Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
Rayyanu had just finished studying and was settling down for the night at his boarding school in northwestern Nigeria when he heard the gunshots. “At first we thought they were going into town. Then we realized they had invaded our school. Almost 10 of them came [into the room] with guns and told us to go outside.” “There were about 200 gunmen. They took us away,” says the teenage boy. Exhausted and traumatized, Rayyanu sits alongside several hundred of his school mates in Katsina State’s government house. The plush conference hall with deep maroon curtains is a world away from the horrors of the last week. Last Friday, kidnappers thought to be bandits allied to the terrorist group Boko Haram raided the Kankara Government Science Secondary in northwestern Nigeria with Kalashnikovs. The gunmen rushed hundreds of them into a nearby forest and made them walk for days to dodge the security forces. It is the biggest abduction in Nigerian history. The school was home to more than 800 boys. No one knows how many children were abducted or are still missing. But suddenly and mysteriously on Thursday, 344 of the boys were released with the Katsina state government claiming that “not a single shot was fired.” The Sunday Telegraph spoke to half a dozen of the boys about their six-day nightmare. They say they were beaten, starved, and threatened with death by hundreds of men with motorbikes and Kalashnikovs. Freed schoolboys look on during a meeting with Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari, on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, in Katsina, Nigeria. CREDIT: (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)/(AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)“Some of us were already deeply asleep [when the gunmen came to the school]. They were shooting in the air. We have suffered a lot,” says Auwal, the young boy’s face expressionless. “We ate once a day. They fed us with five groundnut cookies and sometimes, bread, once a day. We drank water from the river in the forest. We had no shoes, so moving around the forest was terrible.” “We are always at gunpoint. They kept threatening to slaughter us. We sleep on the bare floor, our heads in the sand, [with] nothing to cover our bodies from the cold breeze in the forest at night,” Auwal adds. “We saw military aircraft, but when they flew above us, the abductors hid us under the giant trees.” Shoes of the kidnapped students from Government Science Secondary School are seen inside their classroom Kankara, Nigeria, Wednesday,
Dec. 16, 2020. At first, the Kankara kidnapping was blamed on bandits, with the Nigerian presidency claimed that only about ten boys were with the gunmen. But when Boko Haram, one of the most egregiously violent jihadist groups on earth, claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and said they had 523 boys earlier this week, panic gripped Africa’s most populous nation. Since 2009, the extremist group, whose name means ‘Western Education is Forbidden’, has kidnapped hundreds if not thousands of women and children around the Lake Chad Basin. In 2014, the group kidnapped 276 girls from a school in the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria, sparking an international outcry and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. After six years of secret negotiations and rescue missions, it is thought that more than a hundred of the Chibok girls are still missing. Survivors of Boko Haram’s bush camps say the conditions are beyond words. Earlier this year, children who had escaped the forest camps told the newspaper they had been used as sex slaves, forced to stone rule breakers to death or cut their throats and drink their blood. Hundreds of women and children have been brainwashed or forced into blowing themselves up in crowded market places or at army checkpoints by Boko Haram. Many feared a similar fate would befall the boys if they were not rescued soon. Government officials claim that security forces had cordoned off the area of Rugu forest in Katsina’s neighboring Zamfara state and negotiated with the gunmen until they released the children. Speaking on state television on Thursday, Katsina’s governor claimed that no ransom had been paid.
“The truth is we have been tortured. We told [the gunmen] we were tired while walking through the forest but they threatened us with their rifles,” says Ahmad. “We were told someone was shot but I didn’t see.” “At some point, we saw motorbikes appeared from the forest. There were too many to count. They picked the younger ones amongst us. We were told to keep walking. We moved for hours till dawn…Some of us ate from the trees like bushmen.” “I felt really happy when we were released,” says Ahmad, smiling. “I have learned from this experience and hope to be a customs officer when I graduate.” Some of the boys have been reunited with their parents. Photos show the raw emotion and joy of mothers and fathers who thought they might never see their sons again. In the coming days, it will become clear just how many of the boys are still missing. There may be more than a hundred boys still in captivity, reckons Bulama Bukarti, a Boko Haram expert at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.