More than eight weeks ago, nearly 300 Nigerian schoolgirls vanished into the dense forests of the country’s northern state, stolen from their schoolhouse by militants from the Islamist terror group Boko Haram. Two months later, their deliverance seems more distant than ever.
Images of the girls last appeared in May, as Boko Haram militants released a video showing the teenagers wearing Islamic dress and quoting the Quran. Most of the kidnapped girls are Christian. The terror group’s leader threatened to sell the young women as slaves.
By last week, the country’s former president offered a blunt assessment of the girls’ plight during a Nigerian television interview. “I believe that some of them will never return,” said Olusegun Obasanjo. “We will still be hearing about them many years from now.”
Just a few weeks after their capture, the world is already hearing less about the girls. It took nearly two weeks for their April 15 kidnapping to gain a flurry of international attention, including a Twitter campaign and pledges of help from the U.S. government. Since then, the media furor has ebbed, and the girls have faded from the spotlight.
U.S. efforts to assist the Nigerian military continue, including drone surveillance of some 37,000 square miles of the Sambisa Forest. In a U.S. congressional hearing on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described the challenge. “This is about terrain-wise as complicated a part of the world as there is,” he said. “They have triple, quadruple-canopy jungles.” Hagel added: “These are deadly, smart guys, Boko Haram. So we’re up against that as well.”
J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Atlantic Council, told The Wall Street Journal that waiting two weeks to begin a search for the girls let the trail go cold: “By the time social media caught onto this, it was well too late.”
That’s an agonizing reality for bereaved parents in Chibok—the missing girls’ hometown. Many said they hoped U.S. involvement would improve chances of rescuing their daughters, but each day brings fresh doubts about their return, especially as Nigerian military have floundered in their own efforts.
Meanwhile, residents in the area are facing continued threats from Boko Haram militants still prowling northern Nigeria. Since the kidnappings, the insurgents have attacked villages and churches, killing dozens of vulnerable citizens. Some residents say they sleep in the day and keep watch at night.
Still, some children are determined to return to school, despite Boko Haram’s motto, “Western education is forbidden.” Many schools in the region shut down after the Chibok attacks in April. But the Christian aid group Operation Blessing International (OBI) reported it helped a boarding school in the same region re-open last week. Nearly 200 children returned to the school, and OBI provided razor wire for a perimeter wall, as well as food to feed students in the impoverished region. The group’s president asked supporters to pray for the children’s safety.
According to a UNICEF report, Nigeria has the highest number of unschooled children in the world. Most of those children are girls, and most live in the northern regions, where the Chibok schoolgirls once studied.