(Reuters) – Gunmen who kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls from a boarding school in northwest Nigeria last week beat them and threatened to shoot them during a forced march into captivity, victims said on Tuesday after they were set free.
The pupils from Jangebe, a town in Zamfara state, were seized in a raid just after midnight on Friday. All 279 had now been released by the gunmen, Zamfara Governor Bello Matawalle said.
Dozens of girls in Muslim veils sat in a hall in a state government building before being taken for medical checks. A few parents arrived, and one father wept with joy after seeing his daughter.
Farida Lawali, 15, told how she and the other girls had been taken to a forest by the kidnappers.
“They carried the sick ones that cannot move. We were walking in the stones and thorns,” she said, covered in a light blue veil.
“They started hitting us with guns so that we could move,” she added. “While they were beating them with guns, some of them were crying and moving at the same time.”
Another of the girls, Umma Abubakar, told Reuters they were forced to walk although many had injuries: “They said they will shoot anybody who did not continue to walk.”
Relief at their return was tempered by concern over the circumstances of their release. A series of similar school abductions in recent months has led many Nigerians to worry that regional authorities are making the situation worse by letting kidnappers go unpunished or paying them off.
Zailani Bappa, a media adviser to the state governor, denied that a ransom had been paid, but said the captors had been offered amnesty, as well as assistance to resettle at a site with newly built schools, a hospital and other facilities.
“The process means amnesty for those who repent and will be assisted to resettle,” he said. “Those who surrender their arms will be assisted to start a new life. Since they are herders, they will be supported with a few cows each.”
But the state’s apparent conciliatory approach was at odds with the central government. President Muhammadu Buhari called for the captors to be brought to justice and said that if ransoms were being paid, this would make future attacks more likely.
His national security adviser, Babagana Monguno, said the president had ordered a massive military deployment to Zamfara, banned mining and imposed a no-fly zone in the state.
The central government “will not allow this country to drift into state failure,” Monguno said. “We are not going to be blackmailed.”
But the military is already stretched, and it was difficult to assess whether the flight and mining bans would have much impact in a state with no major airport, and where many mines already operate illegally.
Boarding schools in northern Nigeria have become targets for mass kidnappings for ransom by armed criminal gangs.
The trend was started by the jihadist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped 270 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok in 2014, around 100 of whom have never been found. But recent months have seen a sudden escalation of similar attacks, including the abduction of 344 boys in December.
Friday’s raid on the Government Girls Science Secondary School was the second school abduction in little over a week.
Officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told Reuters that the authorities have made payoffs in the past in exchange for child hostages, creating an incentive for abductions.
Several of those officials declined to comment on Tuesday on whether they believed a ransom had been paid in the latest incident.
Lawal Abdullahi, whose seven daughters were among those kidnapped and freed, said the incident would not deter him from schooling his children.
“It’s a ploy to deny our girls … from getting the Western education in which we are far behind,” he told Reuters. “We should not succumb to blackmail. My advice to government is that they should take immediate precautions to stop further abductions.”
(Reporting by Afolabi Sotunde in Gusaur and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Additional reporting by Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Seun Sanni in Gusau, Hamza Ibrahim in Kano, Felix Onuah in Abuja and Maiduguri Newsroom; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram, Raju Gopalakrishnan, Giles Elgood and Peter Graff; Editing by Philippa Fletcher and John Stonestreet)