A Nigerian woman whose only son is among the more than 330 boys still missing after being kidnapped from their school in the northern Katsina state last week pleaded for their return in a protest Tuesday, as the jihadist rebel group Boko Haram reportedly claimed responsibility for the mass abduction.
Hundreds of gunmen with assault rifles on Friday surrounded the Government Science Secondary School (GSSS), an all-boys boarding school in the town of Kankara, firing at police before rounding up students and forcing them to march through the heavily forested region in separated groups, witnesses have said.
The Daily Nigerian said Tuesday it received an audio message from Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau saying that his group abducted the schoolboys because Western education is against the tenets of Islam.
“What happened in Katsina was done to promote Islam and discourage un-Islamic practices as Western education is not the type of education permitted by Allah and his Holy Prophet,” Shekau said in the recording, according to the newspaper. The audio message has not been independently verified. But Shekau has in the past released video and audio messages on Boko Haram’s behalf.
“Stop killing our children, bring back our children,” Amrata Hamza, whose only son was abducted, told local broadcaster CLIQQ TV during a protest organized Tuesday. “I don’t know the condition of my son. I’m speechless. I can’t talk, I have not drank water since I arrived in Kankara. There is much sunlight, I know our children are thirsty, they are hungry. Please help us bring back our children.”
The Nigerian government said a joint rescue operation was launched Saturday by state police, air force, and army after the military engaged in gunfights with bandits after locating their hideout in the Zango/Paula forest. Many of the initial 600 male students taken from the school escaped their captors, but more than 330 remained unaccounted for as of Tuesday, according to the Associated Press.
“We were inside the hostel when we heard gunshots. I overheard someone saying that the security man has been killed. As we went out, lights were flashed at us, as they approached us, we started hearing gunshots,” Abukakar Umar, a senior student at GSSS, told CLIQQ TV, recounting what happened as his school came under siege. “When it happened, we ran to the bush because bullets were shot directly at us. Until we found a safe place where we slept.”
“To be honest, I don’t have the intention of going back, because we have suffered,” Umar added, explaining that he did not plan to return to the school given the security risk.
In a statement Monday, Nigerian presidential spokesman Garba Shehu said “the kidnappers had made contact and discussions were already on, pertaining to the safety and return” of the children to their homes. Shehu did not mention the identity of the abductors, and it was originally believed that the attackers were bandits, who sometimes work with Boko Haram to hold people for ransom money.
Several armed groups operate in northwestern Nigeria, where Katsina state is located.
“When we heard the news, we were confused totally. We were told they entered the school shooting, going hostel by hostel abducting students,” Yahaya Kankar, the father of two children abducted, told CLIQQ TV. “There was no mercy. It was terrible. They just came and picked our children like donkeys, like animals. We have never imagined something like this, to have bandits entering our school.”
Dajuma Katsina, a local journalist and public commentator, told the outlet that the town of Kankara has been attacked almost on a daily basis for the past two months and questioned why the school was not provided adequate security personnel given the known security threat.
“A school with more than 800 students located in a ‘flash point’ area with just a single policeman attached to the school. This is the most burning question and the most unfortunate thing,” Katsina said. But he also commended efforts by the Katsina state governor, who “despite the tension, visited the school and equally sympathized with teachers and parents.”
Boko Haram and the breakaway faction, the Islamic State West Africa Province, are fighting to impose strict Islamic Shariah rule in Nigeria. Thousands have been killed in the more than 10-year-old insurgency and more than a million people displaced.
This latest episode comes six years after Boko Haram kidnapped more than 270 schoolgirls from their dormitory at the Government Secondary School in Chibok in northeastern Borno State in April 2014. First Lady Michelle Obama spotlighted the issue at the time with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls.
About 100 of the girls are still missing. Boko Haram said at the time that it wanted to stop women from attending schools. The recent incident at the Government Science Secondary School in Kankara, is the worst attack on a boys’ school since February 2014, when 59 boys were killed during a Boko Haram attack on the Federal Government College Buni Yadi in Yobe state.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.