Global watchdog, Human Rights Watch, has slammed the federal government over its unacceptable silence on the abduction of 300 children from Damasak, Borno State.
In a press statement made available to THISDAY on Tuesday, the organisation urged the government to “take urgent steps to secure the release of about 400 women and children, including at least 300 elementary school students, abducted by Boko Haram from the town of Damasak in Borno State a year ago”.
“Damasak is the largest documented school abduction by Boko Haram militants. Yet, it has drawn far less public attention than the group’s widely condemned abduction of 276 schoolgirls from a government secondary school in Chibok in April 2014. While 57 of those girls managed to escape, 219 remain captive almost two years later,” the statement added.
The group said that the children have been missing for a year, and yet there has been no word from the Nigerian government, according to Mausi Segun, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The authorities need to wake up and find out where the Damasak children and other captives are and take urgent steps to free them,” he added.
On November 24, 2014, Boko Haram attacked Damasak, a trading town about 200 kilometers northwest of Maiduguri, near the border with Niger, blocking all four roads leading into the town and trapping residents and traders.
The insurgents quickly occupied Zanna Mobarti Primary School, shutting the gates and locking more than 300 students, ages 7 to 17, inside, according to a teacher at the school and other witnesses that Human Rights Watch interviewed.
The Boko Haram militants then used the school as a military base, bringing scores of other women and children abducted across the town there as captives.
In February 2016, a woman who was at home in Damasak that morning told Human Rights Watch what happened: “It was early morning when I heard gunshots and chaos. My husband had already left home for the market so I grabbed my two children, a boy aged four and a girl aged two, and ran.
“But we ran into Boko Haram and they detained us in the middle of the town. They brought more and more women and children to where we were kept. Then they took all of us to Zanna Mobarti Primary School…I have not seen my children since then.”
The men who were captured by Boko Haram were kept at different locations, including an estimated 80 men in the house of the district head, a witness said.
In the days and weeks following the attack, some of the men were forced to dispose of bodies left on the streets and in the market area. Scores of bodies were dumped into a nearby river and makeshift graves, among other locations.
A witness forced to participate in the operation said he saw hundreds of bodies.
One teacher who had escaped from the primary school but was recaptured soon after told Human Rights Watch, “I was held captive by (Boko Haram) for at least six days… Corpses were on the street. They forced us to carry (the corpses) and go and dispose of them in the river and there is nothing one could do about it.”
The insurgents shot several people who tried to escape by jumping into the river. One man who escaped by swimming across the river said: “Those that were able to swim escaped and those that couldn’t held on to the grass, and they were shot.”
The group accused the Nigerian soldiers of turning back a number of those who tried to flee to Maiduguri and other locations, pointing out that the soldiers apparently were suspicious that Boko Haram insurgents might be hidden among those fleeing.
A farmer who attempted to reach Maiduguri in a vehicle said soldiers at a military checkpoint forced him and others back: “The soldiers turned people back to Damasak. They would not allow you to leave and if you tried, (the soldiers) would smash your car and burst your tires. So you had to look for another way out around the town or (try to cross) the river, if you could swim. It was terrible.”
Between March 13 and 15, 2015, soldiers from neighbouring Chad and Niger advanced on Damasak as part of a cross-border military operation against the insurgents.
As the troops approached, Boko Haram members fled from Damasak, taking with them the 300 children and an estimated 100 more women and children they had been holding captive there.
Six witnesses, now in Maiduguri and whose children or other relatives were among those abducted, told Human Rights Watch that none had been returned.
Some parents have received information from Nigerian refugees in Chad that their children were seen with Boko Haram in Mari and Dogon Chikum, near the Nigerian border with Chad, though Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm this information.
“There is no one you can go and cry to since the military has not gone to attack those places,” said one man who had lost relatives.