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The mass Boko Haram kidnapping that you never heard about

Women who survived the Boko Haram occupation sit on the ground in Damasak, March 24, 2015.


It was the kidnapping that the world ignored. Denied by the authorities, overshadowed by other atrocities, hidden by its remote location, the abduction of about 400 women and children in the Nigerian town of Damasak remains unsolved and shrouded in mystery a year later.

It was the biggest-ever kidnapping by the Islamist radicals of the Boko Haram group, yet it was neglected by politicians and activists who focused instead on the heavily publicized abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014.

While it is Chibok that continues to mesmerize the global spotlight, Boko Haram has abducted at least 2,000 girls and women since the beginning of 2014, turning them into cooks, fighters and sex slaves, according to an Amnesty International report last year. More recently, there have been fears that some of the abducted girls were forced to become suicide bombers.

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Now a new report by Human Rights Watch has documented the worst of those kidnappings: The Damasak abduction in March of last year, in which at least 300 elementary school students were among the estimated 400 captives.

When the first shocking reports began to filter out of the remote northeastern town, which the group took control of last year, the Nigerian government denied that anyone had been kidnapped. The denial went unchallenged because the town was too dangerous for journalists to visit, with Boko Haram fighters still roaming in the district. So the details of the abduction were never confirmed.

But the report by Human Rights Watch on Tuesday quoted six witnesses as saying that their children or other family members were abducted in Damasak and were never found, even after the town was liberated by soldiers from neighbouring Chad and Niger in March of 2015.

The report said the 300 schoolchildren – as young as seven years old – were captured by Boko Haram when the Islamist militia attacked Damasak in November, 2014. The militants occupied Zanna Mobarti Primary School, shut the gates and locked the screaming and crying children inside.

Over the following months, Boko Haram used the school as a military base and brought scores of other women and children into the school as captives, the report said, quoting a teacher and other witnesses. "I have not seen my children since then," a mother of two children told Human Rights Watch.

The extremists separated the women from the children and the boys from the girls, preventing mothers from comforting their abducted children, the report said. The captives were then forced to spend months studying the Koran.

When the heavily armed troops from Chad and Niger were approaching Damasak in March of 2015, the Boko Haram fighters retreated from the town, taking the captives with them. Some parents said they had heard unconfirmed reports that their children were later seen with Boko Haram in other locations.

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"Three hundred children have been missing for a year, and yet there has been not a word from the Nigerian government," Mausi Segun, a Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Tuesday.

"The authorities need to wake up and find out where the Damasak children and other captives are, and take urgent steps to free them," she said.

In addition to the 400 kidnapping victims, a further 470 civilians were killed by Boko Haram during their occupation of the town, based on the number of bodies found in shallow graves and on the streets of the town, according to the Human Rights Watch report.

A year later, with the troops gone, Damasak is now reported to be a "ghost town," with gunfire still heard at night and the town often reverting back to the control of Boko Haram.

The government of Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, which won election last year, has repeatedly claimed to have defeated the Boko Haram insurgency.

Yet, suicide bombings and other deadly attacks by Boko Haram have killed hundreds of civilians this year and the group continues to control much of Borno state, its traditional stronghold in Nigeria's northeast.

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With the second anniversary of the Chibok kidnapping due to be marked on April 14, the Nigerian authorities have failed to rescue any of the Chibok schoolgirls.

One suspected Chibok girl was detained last week in Cameroon, where she was allegedly involved in a planned suicide bombing. But the latest reports suggest that she is too young to have been one of the kidnapped schoolgirls, despite her claim.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More


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