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Nigeria's lost girls and the dark heart of Boko Haram

Kidnappings and killings began long before the abduction of 276 schoolgirls sparked international outrage. But cultural beliefs left them largely ignored

The townspeople first learnt Boko Haram was coming when a police van sped in and told everyone to run. Those living there knew the authorities would not help them. Police officers were already removing their uniforms as they knew they would otherwise be shot.

This, however, was not the Nigerian town of Chibok last month when members of the militant Islamic group seized at least 276 girls from a government-run school. Nor was it Waraba, the village where eight more were taken last week.

It was Gombe, another town in Nigeria's north-east. Yet, unlike the other two cases, this incident was barely reported – either internationally or by the rest of the country. That is because it happened in the months preceding the schoolgirls' kidnap, when Boko Haram's outrages were not only largely ignored by the world but by Nigeria itself.

Isiaka, who witnessed another Boko Haram raid in Borno and fled with his family to Nigeria's capital, Abuja, vividly recalls how communities like his are left to the militants. The attack resulted in his parents, many friends and his wife's father being killed.

"They come in groups, heavily armed," he said. "They are well organised and come out in their hundreds shouting and chanting, 'God is Great'. They go to their operations driving convoys of new cars and trucks without interruption from anybody.

"[Boko Haram] have their own doctors and engineers in their camps, and a fuel station. They operate like their own government. They steal our animals and food from our farms. Any house they go into, they first of all take valuable items and food stuff before they kill and destroy the place they're attacking.

"They attack for several hours, and they do it unchallenged. They always take some youths back to the forests [where they are based] with them. They initiate them by giving them water mixed with charms. Those that refuse to join them are shot."

The incidents were not alone in barely registering on the Nigerian psyche. Already this year Boko Haram had snatched 25 girls from another school in Borno, and days later 42 male students were killed as their dorm rooms were set on fire while they slept. Neither generated national outrage.

Until the events of recent weeks, deeply held religious, ethnic, economic, linguistic, cultural and geographic differences created an invisible barrier between the terrorised communities and the rest of Nigeria. Boko Haram was seen as a "Northern problem", not least as the popular stereotype of a Northern Nigerian being an illiterate Muslim is deeply ingrained in the national psyche despite the large communities of native Christians of varying tribes living in places such as Yobe, Adamawa, Gombe and Borno.

Lack of pictures or video reports from the terrorised areas meant what was occurring there was easier to ignore, especially as casualty figures were regularly under-estimated. There was also no centralised system for reporting the missing, with little internet coverage in the region, no specialised crime-scene investigation, and no government release of the number of dead, meaning that estimates were often based on the number of bodies seen by journalists, who had arrived after many corpses had already been removed.

For many Nigerians it was this previous indifference that explains Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan's tardy response to the schoolgirls' kidnapping. "In all honesty the Govt [sic] never had any intention of doing anything about the abducted girls, just like every other attack. #BringBackOurGirls," was one typical recent tweet.

That has now, finally, changed, as witnessed by the demonstrations and social-media campaigns across the country in support of the schoolgirls. "We cannot continue to live in the delusion that 'It can't happen to us!'" said social-media activist and educator Japheth Omojuwa. "The Nigerians who die in [the north-east] daily are not less human than those in Abuja. We need to stop thinking it is a northern problem."

President Jonathan has vowed that the abducted girls will be found, and warned that Boko Haram's actions will lead to the "end of terrorism" in the country, not least due to the international outcry over the kidnappings. General Chris Olukolade, spokesman for the Defence Headquarters, said yesterday that Nigeria's army has posted two divisions to hunt for the schoolgirls, stationed in the border region close to Chad, Cameroon and Niger to work with other security agencies.

UK and US experts are now on the ground assisting the search. A spokesman for the Foreign Office said the UK team "will be considering not just the recent incidents but also longer-term counter-terrorism solutions to prevent such attacks in the future and defeat Boko Haram".

Michelle Obama, the First Lady, yesterday used the weekly address issued by the White House to further increase the international pressure by saying that both she and her husband, President Barack Obama, "can only imagine the anguish [the kidnapped girls'] parents are feeling".

Mrs Obama called the "unconscionable act" the work of "grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls". She went on to commend the courage of the parents who allowed their daughters to attend school and, in a sentiment retweeted by many in Nigeria, said "education is truly a girl's best chance for a bright future".

Additional reporting by Serina Sandhu