DAPCHI, Nigeria — A militant raid on an all-girls’ school. Dozens of missing students. Silence from government officials. Reports of rescues that turned out to be heartbreakingly false.
The troubling details of a kidnapping that unfolded last week in the rural community of Dapchi in northern Nigeria after Boko Haram attacked a school and apparently made off with teenage hostages horrified the nation. As many as 110 girls have been missing since Monday, when armed militants stormed the school.
Many Nigerians were all the more outraged that the attack and the events that followed mirrored a similar kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls in 2014 in the community of Chibok.
That episode grabbed the world’s attention and elicited promises from officials that it would never happen again. Nearly four years later, an estimated 112 of those students are still held hostage.
“Not even our 112 Chibok Girls would imagine ANY more Daughters of Nigeria would be FAILED AGAIN,” Oby Ezekwesili, a founder of the Bring Back Our Girls group that advocates the release of the Chibok students, said on Twitter.
Ms. Ezekwesili’s group and others have criticized the government for not immediately addressing the Dapchi kidnapping and muddling an already chaotic situation after the attack, which scattered hundreds of students and teachers as they ran for their lives. Federal officials are now saying 110 students are missing. Parents a day earlier released names of 105 missing girls.
President Muhammadu Buhari, who campaigned in 2015 on pledges to find the Chibok students, said on Friday that as soon as he heard about the Dapchi attack, he had deployed security forces with instructions to “not spare any effort to ensure all the girls are returned safely.”
“The entire country stands as one with the girls’ families,” Mr. Buhari said in a statement. “This is a national disaster. We are sorry that this could have happened and share your pain.”
Government officials have pointed out that after girls were stolen in Chibok, the administration of Nigeria’s president at the time, Goodluck Jonathan, waited more than two weeks to acknowledge the kidnapping, a delay they said allowed militants to flee with the girls. This time, they said, the military has already been deployed and is combing Yobe State, where Dapchi is.
Confusion has surrounded the events in Dapchi, said Lai Mohammed, the minister of information, because dozens of girls ran into hiding and have been slowly trickling back to the school.
“This is why the whole situation has been hazy,” he said.
Officials have been careful to avoid acknowledging anyone was kidnapped in Dapchi. Instead, they say only that the girls are missing.
Witnesses, however, described seeing the girls in militants’ vehicles as part of what appeared to be a deliberate plan to steal them. And they said militants arrived at the town looking specifically for the building, which is a boarding place with about 900 students.
One resident who lives a mile outside Dapchi, who asked that his name not be used because he feared for his safety, said his neighbor was outside his home late in the day on Monday when militants pulled up, grabbed him and asked him to point them to the school. He told the fighters he didn’t know where it was and begged to be released. They threw him aside and headed toward the town.
Other residents were also abducted by the militants and ordered to direct them to the school before being released, townspeople said.
Fighters arrived at the school about 5:30 p.m., guns blazing.
Hafsat Lawan, 15, said she and classmates heard gunshots in the distance.
“We joked about it” at first, she said, unable to imagine what was about to happen. “But the sound kept coming and getting serious. We then started running.”
Some girls began climbing over a fence that lined the perimeter. Militants dragged away those who didn’t make it, witnesses said.
The fighters were dressed in army fatigues, but with flip-flops and turbans, another student said. They started telling the terrified girls they were soldiers there to help them, and shepherded them toward their vehicles. In the blur of the moment, some girls believed them, so much so that they desperately scrambled to get into the trucks.
Aisha Ibrahim, another student, said militants beckoned her and her friends to come to them for help.
“But as we came close, I noticed they were not wearing military shoes,” and were speaking a local dialect, Ms. Ibrahim said.
Ms. Ibrahim knew it was unlikely that Nigerian soldiers, who generally are recruited from across the country, would know that language. Her friends didn’t realize they were being deceived, she said.
“They kept threatening me to come back to them or they will they will kill me, but I was courageous enough to run away to join some of my colleagues who were far ahead of me,” she said.
Hauwa Modu, another student, said she and her friends were also suspicious of the men in camouflage. Terrified and sobbing, they ran in every direction to escape.
“The terrorists pursued us,” Ms. Modu said. “They apprehend some, while others ran away escaping into the bushes for safety.”
The militants threated to shoot anyone who ran, “but they never shot anybody,” she said. Residents said fighters took no food or anything of value.
Some students hid safely inside their dormitories. Other students and teachers ran into the scrubby desert countryside. Some stayed in the bush overnight until they were certain it was safe to return.
Hassan Yakubu, who lives in Dapchi, said residents of neighboring communities called him to say they had seen the fighters’ vehicles break down in the hours after the attack. Girls inside the vehicles had been tied up with pieces of clothing, he was told, and the militants were eventually able to continue. Officials did not respond for comment on that account.
On Tuesday, many students who had been hiding started trickling back to the school. But soon it became clear that not everyone had returned. Over the next two days, school officials tried to tally the missing. The effort was complicated by some girls who had fled straight for their parents’ farms outside of town in areas that have at best a poor cellphone network.
Federal officials did not immediately release a statement. The Yobe State police commissioner told local reporters that there were no casualties in the attacks and no reports of an abduction at the school.
Soon, residents said, military jets began patrolling the skies, terrifying residents who fled local markets and open areas because they feared being mistakenly targeted by the military. Nigerian jets erroneously struck a displaced persons camp in the town of Rann last year, killing dozens of people.
Then, late Wednesday, the state’s governor, Ibrahim Gaidam, announced that the missing girls had been rescued. The next day, parents streamed into the school, expecting to hear news of their missing daughters.
But when Mr. Gaidam arrived, he apologized, saying he was mistaken and had relied on security officials whose information had turned out to be false. He told the crowd to view the events as part of God’s plan and to pray for the girls’ return, said Modu Goniri, a father whose two daughters are still missing.
As he spoke, some parents began wailing uncontrollably. A few fainted. The crowd became furious. Several members tried to attack the governor. Some people threw rocks at his convoy, shattering the windows of vehicles. Police arrested as many as five people — two of whom are uncles of missing girls, residents said.
Boko Haram has been roaming the area near Dapchi for years, but the vicinity has been relatively calm for the past year. Soldiers had been operating a checkpoint at the entrance to the town, but about a month ago they dismantled it and pulled out, said Dauda Gombe, director of the North East Youth Initiative for Development, a local aid organization.
He and other Yobe State residents thought the military withdrawal was a sign that normal life was returning, finally. Now, he said, they realize Boko Haram must have been waiting to exploit the reduced security.
“What people are most angry with,” Mr. Gombe said, “is how the government has handled the situation.”
Some parents of the missing Dapchi girls said they were forming an organization similar to that of the Chibok parents’ Bring Back Our Girls, to advocate their own daughters’ release.
While many Chibok students remain captive, dozens of them have been released through government negotiations or escaped. Millions of dollars in ransom has been paid, and some residents in Dapchi wondered whether money might be the motive behind the kidnappings there. Thousands of Nigerians have been abducted and killed by Boko Haram in episodes that have gotten little or no attention from the authorities or the news media. In one incident four years ago, dozens of schoolboys were burned alive by militants.
Aisa Lawan, a mother of a missing girl from Dapchi, said the pain of not knowing the whereabouts of her daughter was unbearable.
“I rather die than stay alive to live my life with this agony,” she said.