LONDON – The gunmen stormed in just as dawn broke over the school in a remote village in northeastern Nigeria. There were around two dozen of them, and, survivors later recounted, they worked quickly, methodically and with unflinching brutality.
“Allahu akbar,” they shouted as they lined up students and murdered them with single bullets to the head. Some of the teenage pupils were burned alive when their dormitories were locked, doused in gasoline and set alight; those trying to escape were knifed to death.
They killed 46 boys all in all. Unlike the abduction of more than 200 girls from a school in the town of Chibok last month, in this attack they spared the girls and killed all the boys. The atrocity barely registered in the international headlines. That was almost a year ago, in July 2013.
The schoolgirls have become symbols of an increasingly vicious conflict that had until now not registered on the Western media’s radar. Yet for more than a year there has been a pattern of attacking Western-style schools, seen as anathema to Boko Haram, whose five-year battle to impose an Islamic caliphate in the north of Africa’s most populous country has killed thousands. Officials and former abductees told the Observer the girls were now being used as sex slaves, a suspicion that has fueled almost two weeks of social-media campaigns and rare protests across Nigeria.
But for ordinary Nigerians, who have lived for half a decade under the shadow of the insurgency, there is frustration that a singular act is obscuring a more complex narrative. Social-media campaigns and public anger — in different forms both at home and abroad — have helped trigger international action from the U.S. and U.K., among others.
The accounts of former abductees of the Islamist sect — Nigerian citizens ranging from civil servants to street hawkers — suggest the schoolgirls are now being used as sex slaves. A day after the Chibok abductions, a squad from the Nigerian Army was dispatched into the Sambisa forest. A soldier in the rescue mission said they encountered a group of 20 women in the scrublands, but they failed to get close to them without alerting the attention of the militants.
“My unit found some 20 women abandoned by Boko Haram in the forest. They were traumatized. Around 15 of them were pregnant,” the soldier said.
Worse was what some of the women said. One, whose identity the Observer is protecting, said: “We were lined up in a single file, then asked our religion. The Muslims among us were allowed to move around the camp freely and interact, while the Christians were turned to sex slaves. Any girl who was Christian would have to sleep with four, five or six of the Boko Haram men every day.”
Officials say the video in which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau threatened to sell the girls is a coded message: The group is willing to ransom them. “You have to understand, these people are terrorists. They have been kidnapping people since the beginning. They see it as a simple business transaction,” said one of Nigeria’s most senior counterterrorism experts. “Just yesterday, I was talking with a man who paid 40 million naira for his release. He had to sell his house to pay them.”
According to the official, a ranking officer, at least 60 Nigerian civilians are currently being held by Boko Haram. They rarely make the news.
For Nafisa (not her real name), a mother of three in Borno state, the news of the abductions was just another ordinary day. In February, her daughter became one of Boko Haram’s abductees. “When I heard of Chibok, it was just another ordinary day. The pain,” she said in a quiet voice, “does not go away.”
On the night of Feb. 14 this year, the militants launched an attack in Konduga, where Nafisa and her children lived. They kidnapped 21 students, including Nafisa’s daughter Hauwa. A day later, while the villagers were burying their dead, the insurgents returned to continue their killing spree. Fifty-seven were killed.
Just as horrifying is the second time Nafisa lost one of her children in a raid. In a chilling mirror of Boko Haram’s own atrocities, the Nigerian military killed her son. Four months before Boko Haram abducted her daughter, soldiers stormed the local madrassa where Nafisa’s 19-year-old son, Baana, was a student. He was loaded into a police van along with others suspected of being sympathizers with the sect.
Each time Nafisa went to the local military barracks where the students were being held, soldiers assured her that he was safe. For three months, Nafisa paid various “fees” apparently required to secure his release.
“I just held on to the hope my son was alive,” she said.
Three months later, her son’s friend, abducted alongside Baana, was released. He came to her house after his release and delivered the news she dreaded hearing: Her son was dead.
“He died even before we reached the barracks. They threw him into the van first, and then they put so many others on top of him that he suffocated,” the friend said.
Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases of massacres by the Nigerian Army in its quest to crush the insurgency. On March 14, Amnesty International said 600 mostly unarmed detainees were extrajudicially executed by the army in a single day.
President Goodluck Jonathan has so far underwhelmed with his reaction to the girls’ seizure. At the World Economic Forum for Africa he mentioned them in passing. His speech had the feel of a short, unconvincing pledge to free them that was bolted on to a longer pre-written speech about Africa’s economic prospects.
To be sure, the spotlight being shone on Nigeria is not unwelcome. The latest Hollywood star to get involved is Angelina Jolie. Celebrity endorsement of a cause can be a powerful force for mobilizing voters, and their governments.
But for journalists and activists who have followed the story for years, there is both relief and frustration at the attention its now getting.
“I fear that while the global response has been great, the enormity of the problem gets lost in the celebrity of the trending hashtag,” said Joan Aken’Ova, who has fought for girls’ rights for decades in Nigeria.