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Families are pleading for answers after mass kidnapping by extremists

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GAMBORU NGALA, Nigeria — One month after suspected Islamist militants abducted more than 100 people in this remote area of northern Nigeria, their families are pressing local authorities for news of the missing — mostly girls and young women — and pleading with foreign governments for help with their rescue.

In a dilapidated camp for displaced people, Alkhali Adam, the father of an 11-year-old boy who was kidnapped, said that families are passing sleepless nights and spending their days asking God to return those who were abducted, many of them while collecting firewood. He said government authorities have barred the families of those who were kidnapped from talking about what happened, saying that community leaders should speak for them.

“How can you keep quiet if your only son has been kidnapped?” Adam, 40, said in an interview. “I ask the international communities not to forget us … our state is doing nothing, and so their help is important.”

A woman named Bintou Mohamed, whose only daughter — 14-year-old Falmata — was among those abducted, said the families have heard nothing from authorities except that they are searching. She said parents have been sacrificing animals and asking God for their children’s return.

“We need help in every sense of the word,” she said. “Humanitarian help, psychological help and lots of prayers.”

Nigeria has been grappling for more than a decade with Islamist militants from the Boko Haram group and a splinter faction associated with the Islamic State in the country’s northernmost regions and also with a variety of criminal groups, loosely termed “bandits,” in the northwest.

This month, Nigeria has been racked by multiple abductions. While authorities have in recent days celebrated the rescue of 138 students taken from their school in Kaduna State, Maj. Gen. Edward Buba, the spokesman for the military’s defense operations, said authorities are still searching for those who were captured March 1 near the Gamboru Ngala camp by Islamist extremists.

Buba put the number of people taken from the camp at 112, but a community leader, who declined to give his name, said that 217 people were abducted, many of them girls between the ages of 9 and 15.

This abduction, analysts say, appears to be the largest kidnapping by an Islamist extremist group in Nigeria since 2014, when Boko Haram — whose name roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden” — took 276 girls in the town of Chibok, triggering an international effort to return the girls. The Nigerian government has in recent years touted its progress in defeating Boko Haram, which was born in the early 2000s out of political grievances. There is currently confusion about which group carried out the latest abduction, with the military blaming the Islamic State — West Africa Province, and some researchers and locals saying it was more likely Boko Haram, which goes by the name Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’awati Wal-Jihad (JAS).

Malik Samuel, a research consultant with the Institute for Security Studies based in Abuja, Nigeria, said this abduction has gained less attention than other recent kidnappings in part because the area is so remote and dangerous to reach. The government has also tried to limit information about the incident, he said, “because the more information gets out, the more the government looks bad.”

A journalist from The Washington Post was able to visit the camp for displaced people and interview some family members before a community leader insisted he go see Nigerian intelligence officials, who then told the journalist to leave. Further interviews were conducted by phone.

Abba Adam, a 10-year-old boy, was among a group fetching firewood on March 1 and was briefly abducted before escaping. The short, curly-haired boy said that a group of men instructed those collecting firewood to come with them, saying they would lead them to a place with better wood.

He said other men had rounded up more people collecting firewood, mostly girls and young women, and asked them to get in trucks. They stopped when they were deeper in the bush, he recalled, and men with guns, box-cutters and big sticks surrounded them. “They told us that from now on we were going to live here and that they were going to teach us the Quran,” said Abba Adam.

But he escaped with two friends while their captors slept, reuniting with their parents a few days after the abductions. He said a girl who fled with them became scared they would be killed if caught and decided to return to the captors.

“I’m happy to see my parents,” said Adam, who spoke with the authority of someone older. “I thought I would have died at the hands of these people. … Now the fear is gone.”

Samuel said that as the weeks pass, it could grow increasingly difficult for the military to rescue those taken, because the likelihood that the group splits up or that some of the girls become pregnant goes up.

The abduction in Gamboru Ngala was probably carried out by JAS , Samuel said, because their fighters were pushed into the area around the camp following a recent skirmish with the Islamic State group. He said the kidnappings show that JAS is more powerful than is commonly acknowledged by the government, although the Islamic State faction has more members and resources. Both are active in Nigeria’s Borno State, where the abduction took place, and on the nearby islands of Lake Chad, which is at the border of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon.

If militants from the Islamic State faction were responsible, it would represent a shift because they do not typically carry out these kind of kidnappings, said Vincent Foucher, a research fellow at France’s National Center for Scientific Research who focuses on northeast Nigeria.

The displacement camp is one of several created in recent years as Nigerians fled violence by Boko Haram and the Islamic State group. The situation in the camps, run by the United Nations and its partners along with the Nigerian government, is dire, said Alkhali Adam, explaining that families do not have enough food to eat and that their children have been forced to go increasingly far to search for firewood for cooking.

Buba, the military spokesman, said the geography of the area makes the search operation difficult, noting that members of the extremist groups still wield power in the deepest parts of Lake Chad, which can be difficult to access.

He said that the camp residents who left to fetch wood at dawn made a mistake by not alerting camp leaders they intended to go beyond the four-mile radius that is considered “secure.” By the time that camp leaders grew worried and notified the military, Buba said, it was around 10:30 p.m. at night. “It gave the terrorists a head start,” he said. “They were soft targets.”

Alkhali Adam, his voice quiet with weariness, said that when he now sees boys studying the Quran, he thinks of his son, who should be back in the camp beside them. He said that he has little hope the state will bring back those who were taken.

“We don’t know what to do,” he said. “All the relatives of the kidnapped people are suffering from trauma, and we don’t know what to do other than pray to God for their release.”

Chason reported from Dakar, Senegal.

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