Peace reigns in Nigeria's Damasak but children still missing

2017-04-27 10:00
Flag and map of Nigeria. (iStock)

Flag and map of Nigeria. (iStock)

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Damasak- Yagana Bukar's younger brothers Mohammed and Sadiq were among about 300 children kidnapped by Boko Haram from the town of Damasak in remote northeastern Nigeria nearly three years ago.

But unlike the global outrage and social media campaign that followed the abduction of 219 schoolgirls from Chibok, there were no protests for the children of Damasak.

Most of those rounded up in Damasak on November 24, 2014 were boys aged about 10. They were taken deep into the bush. Most have not been seen since.

The mass kidnapping was denied by the government at the time and even by locals, who said they feared incurring the wrath of politicians already grappling with the fall-out from Chibok.

Damasak is now one of the many neglected tragedies of the bloody eight-year insurgency that has killed at least 20 000 people, left millions homeless and caused a severe food shortage.

"When Boko Haram arrived they gathered all of the kids, they took them to one compound," said 20-year-old Bukar, wearing a blue gingham print hijab.

"Boko Haram was ruling the town then, they didn't burn yet, they didn't kill," she told AFP, sitting on a green plastic prayer mat outside the mud house from where her brothers were snatched.

After a week under Boko Haram occupation, her family decided to follow many of those in the town who had fled into neighbouring Niger. She hasn't seen her two brothers since.

"I hope they come back safe," she said. Lost in a memory, her voice suddenly trailed off and she started to cry. "I miss them seriously. They are always with me."

Return to normal 

Nigerian forces say they have no new information on the location of the kidnapped children of Damasak.

"If we have any information regarding that, we will work towards it," said Major Muhammed Kaigama, of 145 Battalion Nigerian Army stationed in the town.

Despite its unhappy past, Damasak, which was recaptured by Nigerian troops and regional allies in July last year, is being seen as a beacon of hope for the conflict-scarred northeast.

The road to the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, nearly 200km away was reopened in December last year after years of fierce battles with the jihadists.

One of the first aid helicopters arrived a month later.

Now the government is leading a reconstruction effort and aid agencies are distributing food and ramping up health services, including vaccinations against polio.

Signs of the conflict are everywhere: Boko Haram's black insignia is still visible, daubed on the walls of destroyed buildings lining the main street.

Yet, in many ways, life is returning to normal. A market has reopened where traders sell onions, pepper and baobab leaves for soup.

Children play with tyres in the streets. The first school is set to reopen next month.

In a house opposite the market, the family of Modu Mandama, a 50-year-old tailor who recently returned from Niger, celebrates the marriage of their daughter.

Factional fighting 

Nigerian forces say the rift in Boko Haram between its long-time leader Abubakar Shekau and the Islamic State group-backed Abu Musab al-Barnawi could be why Damasak is enjoying peace.

"Predominantly it's the Al-Barnawi faction that is here," said Major Kaigama about Boko Haram's presence in the border region.

"Going by their ideology they believe in attacking the military but they have never been here," he added.

The heavy military presence and frequent patrols in a 30km radius around Damasak was a deterrent to attacks, he maintained.

Members of the civilian militia force helping with security share the same view.

"Those for Shekau, they kill and collect properties but for Barnawi they only kill soldiers," said Gudusu Kyari, 39, wearing a knife on his belt and carrying a metal whip in his right hand.

Whatever the reason for the peace, the people of Damasak say they are thankful they can now return to their homes - or at least try to rebuild what's left of them.

Goni Modu Aji, a 50-year-old farmer, is back in the fields after spending two years in Niger.

His friend's adopted son, Baba Kaka, was seized when Boko Haram claimed the town in 2014 but managed to escape.

Now 14, the boy is one of the few children of Damasak to return home. Aji believes the focus on Chibok has been unfair.

"They only talked about Chibok," he said, looking across the river which separates Nigeria from Niger. "They didn't talk about other places."

Read more on:    boko haram  |  nigeria  |  west africa

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