By Afolabi Sotunde
KATSINA, Nigeria (Reuters) – Scores of schoolboys who were rescued from kidnappers in northwest Nigeria arrived back home on Friday, many of them barefoot and wrapped in blankets after their week-long ordeal.
The boys, dressed in dusty clothes, looked dazed and weary but otherwise well as they got off buses in the city of Katsina and walked to a government building.
One, who did not give his name, said the captors had told him to describe them as members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram, although he suspected they were armed bandits.
“They beat us morning, every night. We suffered a lot. They only gave us food once a day and water twice a day,” he told Nigeria’s Arise television.
A week earlier, gunmen on motorbikes raided the boys’ boarding school in the town of Kankara in Katsina state and marched hundreds of them into a vast forest that spans four states.
Security services rescued them on Thursday, authorities said. However, many details surrounding the incident remain unclear, including who was responsible, whether a ransom was paid, how the boys’ release was secured and whether all of them are now safe.
The abduction gripped a country already incensed by widespread insecurity, and evoked memories of Boko Haram’s 2014 kidnapping of more than 270 schoolgirls in the northeastern town of Chibok.
Six years on, only about half the girls have been found or freed. Some were married off to fighters, while others are assumed to be dead.
Any Boko Haram involvement in this kidnapping would mark a geographical expansion in its activities from its base in the northeast. The region is also plagued by armed gangs that rob and kidnap for ransom.
Hours before the rescue of the boys was announced on Thursday, a video started circulating online purportedly showing Boko Haram militants with some of the boys. Reuters was unable to verify the authenticity of the footage or who released it.
The boy interviewed by Arise TV was one of those who spoke in the video.
“They said I should say they are Boko Haram and gangs of Abu Shekau,” he said, referring to a name used by a Boko Haram leader. “Sincerely speaking, they are not Boko Haram … They are just small and tiny, tiny boys with big guns.”
Another of the boys told Reuters that the kidnappers had initially taken them to a hiding place.
“But when they saw a jet fighter, they changed the location and hid us in a different place. They gave us food, but it was very little,” he said.
TEARS OF JOY, PRAYERS OF THANKS
On Friday, the boys from the Government Science Secondary School walked from the buses in single file, flanked by soldiers and armed police officers, and were taken to the government building to meet the governor.
“We are very grateful. We are very grateful. We are very grateful,” a man who said he was the father of two of the pupils told Arise TV.
The boys were later brought back to the buses and driven off for medical checks, officials said.
A group of parents waited to be reunited with them in a shaded parking lot in another part of town.
Hajiya Bilikisu, in a cream-colored veil, said she had started to lose hope that she would ever see her son, Abdullahi Abdulrazak, again.
“I was just crying, crying with joy, when I saw them, my son” in pictures after the release, she told Reuters.
“They have to recovery psychologically,” she said. “They went through trauma. We have to try to counsel them, so they can now become normal persons.”
Hafsat Funtua, mother of 16-year-old Hamza Naziru, said she ran out of her house with joy “not knowing where to go” when she heard the news.
“I couldn’t believe what I heard until neighbors came to inform me that it’s true,” she said in a phone interview. She later returned home to pray.
The mass kidnapping piled pressure on the government to deal with militants in the north of the country.
It was particularly embarrassing for President Muhammadu Buhari, who comes from Katsina state and has repeatedly said that Boko Haram has been “technically defeated”.
Buhari said he had congratulated the state’s governor and the army, in a brief clip from an interview posted on his Twitter account earlier on Friday.
Information Minister Lai Mohammed told journalists on Friday the abduction was “totally unacceptable”.
“Our children should not have to go to school in trepidation. The federal government is doing everything possible to secure all our schools, and indeed all Nigerians,” he said at a press conference in the capital, Abuja.
(Reporting by Ismail Abba in Katsina; Additional reporting by Maiduguri newsroom, Ardo Hazzad in Bauchi, Garba Muhammad in Kaduna, Camillus Eboh and Felix Onuah in Abuja, and Alexis Akwagyiram in Lagos; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Alexandra Zavis and Mike Collett-White)