A pupil abducted by the Boko Haram insurgents said she still dreams of the chaos and the flying bullets.
Five years after Boko Haram terrorists struck Dapchi, a town in Yobe State and abducted over 100 pupils from Government Girls Science and Technical College, Amina Yusuf (not real name), still hears the insurgents screaming Allahu Akbar, Arabic for “God is great” as they shot sporadically into the air, as if it is happening at the moment.
“I can’t forget such an experience,” Ms Yusuf, now a public health student at the Federal Polytechnic Damaturu, told PREMIUM TIMES. “I thought that was the end of my life because there were many of them chanting “Allahu Akbar”. The story of the Chibok girls and how some of them were still in captivity came to my mind. The memories can’t be erased.”
The abduction of the 110 pupils in Dapchi came four years after the terrorists attacked Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok in neighbouring Borno State and abducted 276 school girls.
For close to 14 years, terrorists have Launched audacious attacks on residents of the North East killing about 35,000 people with about two million others displaced in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger Republic.
Boko Haram opposes Western education, which is why schools like the one in Chibok, Dapchi and Buni Yadi in Nigeria’s North-east region were brutally attacked. The terrorists also attacked places of worship, markets, government buildings, offices of security agencies, motor parks and other places.
The attack happens around dusk. Ms Yusuf recalled that some of the pupils were about to break a voluntary fast and were waiting for the Muazin to call the evening prayer before their fast was broken.
Ms Yusuf picked a plastic bucket from her bedside to go to the borehole to fetch water for ablution when she heard gunshots.
In the chaos that ensued almost immediately, Ms Yusuf said confused pupils were running to find refuge everywhere. She said some ran towards the school’s staff quarters while others retreated to their hostels. She rushed towards the school’s gate with other pupils who were trying to escape from the invading terrorists. It was a mistake.
The gunshots continued.
“The school’s gateman was shouting that we should go back into the school but we were many. We didn’t heed his advice. We kept running towards the gate and to the main road when their (terrorists) convoy caught up with us,” she said.
The insurgents wore military uniforms with turbans on their heads, she said. They rode in “small vehicles” and trucks and when they caught up with the fleeing pupils, they surrounded them and asked them to enter one of the trucks if they wanted to be protected.
With little or no option, the terrified pupils hopped into the truck. Ms Yusuf said she knew they were not soldiers the moment she jumped into the truck. She was one of those who jumped into the truck voluntarily while others hesitated. Those who hesitated, the terrorists grabbed and threw into the truck.
The drive to the insurgents’ hideouts was more terrifying, Ms Yusuf said. She couldn’t count the number of pupils in the truck but she said there were many, all of them shouting for help.Immediately the convoy drove outside the community, their abductors stopped and asked those fasting to identify themselves. Ms Yusuf said she was shocked by the question because it was not Ramadan when Muslims are obligated to fast for 30 days. She wondered how the terrorists knew some of the pupils were fasting because the fast was voluntary.
“Later, some of them (insurgents) told us they had informants in our school and they knew most students fast on Mondays and Thursdays.
“They brought cans of Matina, pure water and local cake and asked us to break our fast because it would be a long journey,” Ms Yusuf said.
But she didn’t eat anything given to them because she remembered hearing that after the Chibok abduction, the pupils who ate the meal offered by their abductors never returned. She said they were driven to a hideout close to Lake Chad.
An hour into the journey, one of the pupils beside her whispered to Ms Yusuf that some pupils in the truck seemed to have stopped breathing. Ms Yusuf was too terrified to look in the direction of the pupils in distress. Fearing that the pupils who weren’t breathing might have died, other pupils in the truck started screaming and the truck conveying them pulled over.
“I don’t know what actually happened to them but they were not shot because there was no blood on their clothes. They died inside the truck because we entered together. Maybe it was because of the congestion in the truck or they were trampled on,” she said.She said by the time the truck pulled over five of the pupils were dead.
The insurgents threw their bodies in another truck and them into their armour truck. Ms Yusuf said they threw them into the truck on top of guns and bullets like “sacks of cement” and continued their journey to the terrorists’ hideout.
In the morning, after travelling the whole night, the insurgents stopped and told the pupils they were in Niger Republic. They prayed and ordered the pupils to gather in one place. Ms Yusuf thought they were going to be massacred but instead, the five dead bodies were brought forward.
“They said they would bury them (dead pupils) and continued travelling. We were made to go in threes or fours to identify the bodies. They were all in their house clothes. They dug a shallow hole and threw the bodies inside. That was when I started crying. I imagined it could have been me. When we jumped into the truck to continue the journey, we were all crying uncontrollably,” she said.
Later some of the pupils started begging the insurgents to return them to their school but with every plea, the insurgents told them to calm down and continue obeying them.
“They kept promising they would not hurt us if we kept quiet,” she said.
Deep into their journey, they stopped by a “huge” tree and rested. They continued the journey for some hours. They stopped and ate. That was when Ms Yusuf finally succumbed and ate. She could no longer bear the raging hunger tormenting her.
They continued the journey again until they reached a river. The insurgents stopped and asked them to come down. They said they would leave their vehicles there and enter the river.
“We crossed the river and spent the night in a deserted community. There were not many houses but I think it was one of their towns. In the morning, we prayed and continued the journey but this time around we used canoes,” she said.
Their final destination was a thickly forested island. Not far away, Ms Yusuf said they reached the abode of the insurgents and saw some of their wives.
All 105 pupils were kept in a makeshift tent covered with camouflage tarpaulin in a dense forest where they could barely see the sky.
Ms Yusuf said sometimes they would hear the roars of military jets but the roars would disappear into the distance. Then one day, the jets came.
“One afternoon, we were sitting outside and chatting while the older pupils were cooking food as usual, and then we heard the roar of the planes. They call the military planes several names but the one I can recall now is Hawk. The planes spent a lot of time over us. I believe they suspected that was where we were being kept,” she said.
The Damaturu-born girl said their captors initially dismissed the presence of the hovering jets boasting that it would not spot the girls. But when the jets hovered around longer than usual, the terrorists became worried and started making plans to relocate the girls, the jets later left.
When the jets withdrew, the pupils launched into another round of cries of anguish. Ms Yusuf said she thought that was the end.
“When the jets left, we cried. I personally cried because I thought we would not make it alive,” she said.
The terrorists made a uniform of flowing gowns with hijabs for the pupils. they also gave them bathroom slippers. They gave them food twice every day, mostly rice.
Then one evening, the terrorists told the pupils that they would be returned to their parents. But they threatened to re-abduct any pupil who dared to return to school.
“They said they know us so we must not go back to school. They said we should just go and get married and stop wasting our time going to Western school. That night, we sang and danced throughout the night. In the morning, they took us on a journey back to Dapchi,” Ms Yusuf said with a smile.
While inside the truck, the insurgents told the pupils that they would not see any security agents on the road up to Dapchi because they told the “government” to withdraw all “uniformed” men on the road or else they would return with the pupils back to their hideouts.
Back to school
Despite the terrorists’s threat, a few weeks after she and other pupils were released, she told her father she was ready to return to the same school where she was abducted.
“When we were in their camp, they played recorded sermons for us. Sometimes some of them would conduct the sermons and it was the same message: they said as Muslims we’ve nothing to do in such schools. They said we should all go and get married and stop wasting our time seeking Western education. They threatened us never to return to school,” she said.
Ms Yusuf said some of her friends all got married after they were released but she had a dream. She said her father said he would allow her to return to school but not Dapchi.
Her father, a graduate of the University of Maiduguri, registered her in a private secondary school in Damaturu. But in 2021, when Ms Yusuf was graduating, she insisted on returning to Dapchi to write her Senior Secondary School Leaving Examinations.
“I decided to return to Dapchi because of the memories and the scars of the abduction. Some of these things, you can’t forget them. I’ve our graduation photo album that we did when I returned to write my final exams,” she said.
She showed this reporter some of her friends who were also abducted with her in the album.
Immediately after her results were released, Ms Yusuf was admitted to the Federal Polytechnic in Damaturu to study Public Health.”I wanted to continue studying because I’ve already missed a year due to the abduction. I will continue my studies when I finish the polytechnic,” she said.
Despite the trauma of the abduction, Ms Yusuf said she has more than a hundred unanswered questions. For five years, she kept asking herself how it was possible for “criminals” to “steal” one hundred human beings, load them in vehicles and drive away without being challenged.