WHEN the schoolgirls first saw the heavily armed gunmen appear outside their dormitory in Chibok, northeast Nigeria, they assumed they were soldiers.
Disguised in military uniforms, the insurgents told the boarding school’s headmistress that Islamic militants from the dreaded Boko Haram were about to attack and they needed to leave immediately.
Terrified, 129 female pupils, aged 15 to 18, climbed into pick-up trucks. By the time the girls realised they had been tricked it was too late — they were already being driven towards caves that hide a Boko Haram base deep inside a forest.
Under the leadership of Abubaker Shekau, the group, whose name means “western education is a sin” in the local Hausa dialect, has spread fear across the region, forcing dozens of schools to close.
“We were crying,” said Godiya Isaiah, 18, who jumped from one of the trucks before fleeing into the bush. Others escaped by clinging to low hanging branches.
Most of the girls were not so lucky. About 85 were still being held yesterday.
Asabe Kwabula, the headmistress, appealed last night to the kidnappers “to have mercy on the students”.
“I am pleading with the government to secure the release of the children, to save the lives of these innocents,” she said. “I am with the parents, praying continuously for the teenagers’ safe return.”
Rehab, 17, one of the teenagers who escaped, described her ordeal after she and her friend Comfort, 15, leapt from a truck in the forest. “Many girls were crying and screaming, but we summoned up some courage and grabbed some of the branches and clung on to them while the truck moved on with the other girls,” she said.
“We jumped down and began to run into the darkness. Comfort and I went in the same direction, but four other girls took the path leading back to a village. We didn’t know where we were going but we kept on running.
“When we were tired we sat down under a tree and slept … Very late in the evening some people saw us and we asked to be taken to the soldiers. They asked who we were and we told them we were students at Chibok school.”
The girls are lucky to be alive. Boko Haram has bombed churches and mosques, slaughtered hundreds of schoolchildren and their teachers and assassinated religious leaders in its quest to carve out an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.
The mass abduction on Monday nonetheless shocked a nation that was reeling from a bombing hours earlier at a crowded bus station in Abuja, the capital, during the morning rush hour. The car bomb killed at least 75 people and wounded more than 120.
Experts believe that the twin attacks signal the growing strength of Boko Haram, which is believed to have killed 1,500 people since the start of the year, making it the deadliest period since the group’s insurrection began in 2009.
The attacks underscore the military’s failure to contain the uprising. The people of Chibok are furious with the army for its feeble response to the abduction of the girls and its subsequent failure to send in troops to secure the town.
Intelligence sources in the state of Borno, where the kidnapping took place, believe the militants have taken the girls deep into the Sambisa forest.
The forest, which covers about 200 square miles near the border with Cameroon, is believed to conceal the militants’ heavily fortified bases. It is almost impenetrable.
Boko Haram fighters equipped with heavy machineguns, rocket-propelled grenades and homemade bombs frequently ambush Nigerian soldiers who try to flush the militants from their forest sanctuary.
At least 30 Nigerian soldiers were killed this month on a forest patrol.
Government officials fear the militants will either murder the girls or use them as sex slaves, cooks and porters. Others may be sold into slavery or prostitution in neighbouring countries.
A surveillance aircraft has been circling the remote area since Monday but its pilots cannot fly low enough because they face being shot down by the terrorists’ hidden anti- aircraft guns.
“It’s incredibly traumatic for everyone,” said Ndume Mohammed Ali, a senator from the region.
“It’s made worse by the fact that we don’t know what condition the girls are in.”
The militants bolted shut the doors to a dormitory where 59 boys between the ages of 11 and 18 slept. They then set fire to the building, burning the schoolboys alive. Those who tried to escape had their throats slit with machetes or were shot dead.
“Boko Haram poses an extremely serious threat to the integrity of the Nigerian state,” said John Campbell, a former US ambassador to Nigeria. “There are definite fears that the group could expand its operations.”
The army has failed to extend its writ beyond the main towns in the northeast, allowing the militants to rampage through the countryside, slaughtering Christians and beheading lorry drivers with chainsaws.
“The region is one of the poorest on earth. It’s an extremely fertile ground for extremists to recruit,” said Ali, the senator.
“As the military steps up operations, so the insurgents step up the intensity of their attacks. It’s becoming a vicious cycle that only gets worse and worse.”