DAPCHI, Nigeria— Garba Sule was preparing for evening prayers when heavily armed Boko Haram jihadists rode into town last week in pickup trucks, firing hundreds of rounds into the air and demanding directions to the local girls’ school.
The camouflage-clad militants loaded up dozens of students from the Dapchi Government Girls Science and Technical College and drove them into the surrounding scrubland, according to eyewitnesses, schoolteachers and local officials. Among them: Mr. Sule’s 13-year-old daughter, Zara.
A week after the Feb. 19 attack, 110 schoolgirls from this remote town in northeastern Nigeria remain unaccounted for, stunning Africa’s most populous nation and rekindling memories of Boko Haram’s seizure of 276 girls from Chibok Government Secondary School in 2014.
Gulf of Guinea
That earlier attack, initially ignored by Nigeria’s government, ultimately prompted a global activist movement—#BringBackOurGirls. About half of the kidnapped Chibok schoolgirls either escaped or were ransomed; 112 remain missing. At least 13 are presumed dead. Boko Haram continues to hold thousands of abducted boys and girls.
The latest episode has sparked outrage across Nigeria, where public anger has focused on authorities who initially refused to acknowledge the incident and then incorrectly claimed to have rescued the girls.
“We are in deep pain. We’ve hardly eaten,” said Mr. Sule, a 45-year-old researcher at the local hospital. “The government has lied to us, like they did with the Chibok girls.”
Over the weekend, President Muhammadu Buhari said in a tweet that the kidnapping was a “national disaster” and pledged to mobilize all the government’s resources to locate the girls. On Sunday, Nigeria’s air force confirmed it was assisting in the manhunt.
But anger is swelling in Dapchi, where parents are gathering daily to protest. The governor of Yobe state was whisked from town on Thursday as crowds pelted his motorcade with rocks. Nigeria’s main opposition PDP party on Sunday accused Mr. Buhari’s government of a coverup and demanded an explanation for the security breach.
The Dapchi attack demonstrated Boko Haram’s residual capacity to launch headline-grabbing assaults.
The militant group has ridiculed the government’s repeated claims to have “technically defeated” it after an eight-year insurgency that has spread into neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad and sent millions fleeing from their homes. After losing hundreds of square miles of territory to government forces, the jihadists have increased their attacks in the past year, sending more than 90 children strapped with bombs into public places. Kidnappings have continued.
The Dapchi attack, according to testimony of eyewitnesses, school employees and local officials, bore the hallmarks of a well-planned military operation.
“This symbolically shows the sect is not defeated. Their leader is not dead. Many Nigerians in rural areas are not safe,” said Ryan Cummings, director at Signal Risk, a risk consultancy specializing on Africa.
At around 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 19, shortly before the sundown call to prayer, the militant convoy rumbled into town and the crackle of their gunfire sent terrified residents running for their lives.
An attack had been feared for years in Dapchi, a town of 15,000 people about a three-hour drive from the city of Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram’s insurgency. Last month, Nigeria’s military redeployed troops who had patrolled Dapchi for months to an area further north that it deemed less secure.
As residents fled the militants, some heard the insurgents ask for directions to the school. Dapchi Government Girls Science Technical College, a group of red-roofed buildings on the town’s western edge, has more than 900 students from across the state.
Yari Ari, the school cook, was saying evening prayers in the staff quarters when she saw armed militants enter the school compound and head toward the dormitories.
“I started hearing gun shots and after that, three gun trucks drove into the school premises,” said Ms. Ari, who has worked at the school for 15 years. “I hid in a nearby bush, but I could see what was happening. It was Boko Haram members who were dressed in military fatigues.”
Ms. Ari said she watched as dozens of students ran screaming from the compound or scaled the perimeter fence. Her daughter Zarau also fled into the woods and they were reunited several hours later.
“I’m among the lucky ones,” Ms. Ari said.
In the school’s overcrowded dormitories, Boko Haram commanders told students they were government soldiers deployed to safely remove them from the area, said eyewitnesses and local officials. It was an exact replay of the strategy used to kidnap the Chibok students four years earlier.
As the militants entered the compound, 14-year-old Mariyam Garba—one of Mr. Sule’s daughters—who was at the school’s mosque praying with 50 others, immediately ran for her life.
“One of our school guards asked us to run,” she said. “I ran into the bush. When we stopped hearing gun shots, then I came out and ran home.”
Ms. Garba’s sister, Zara, who was fasting that day and relaxing in the dormitory, wasn’t so lucky.
The people who had escaped into nearby bushland watched as dozens of girls were led from the school buildings, loaded onto trucks and driven away into the night.
Local authorities say that not a single person was killed.
The Dapchi dormitories still bore signs this weekend of the chaos of the raid. Exercise books and pairs of sandals were strewn, unclaimed, across the floor. T-shirts, bed sheets and red- and white-checkered school dresses lay on wire-framed bunk beds.
In the following days, the fate of the missing students was shrouded in confusion. Late on Wednesday, the town erupted into celebrations as Yobe’s governor announced that the girls had been rescued, only to say a day later that he was mistaken and had relied on security officials whose information had proven incorrect.
By Friday, as outrage spread across the country, Mr. Buhari had dispatched several of his most senior officials to Dapchi to lead the hunt for the missing.
Nigeria’s government reiterated on Sunday that it was widening its search and had deployed security forces to every school in Yobe state to ensure students’ safety.
While local officials continue to say some of the Dapchi girls may still come out from hiding, hope is fading—and anger swelling—with each day they don’t return.
Adamu Mairariya, who weaves and sells reed baskets, said two of her daughters were among those kidnapped in the attack. “The government is still lying to us,” she said. “We don’t want a repeat of the Chibok girls to happen to our daughters.”
26/02/2018 01:04 am