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Boko Haram's focus on destroying schools threatens a generation

Extremist group has kidnapped hundreds of children and forced nearly 1 million out of school

Boko Haram Nigeria Damasak

In November 2014, 400 women and children were abducted in the remote Nigerian border town of Damasak. The kidnapping garnered far less attention than the 276 school girls taken from Chilbok seven months earlier. This young girl managed to avoid the Damasak kidnapping. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

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In the early morning of Nov. 24, 2014, hundreds of militants from the brutal extremist group Boko Haram poured into the remote Nigerian border town of Damasak.

First, they blocked all four main roads in. 

Fighters then went straight to the Zanna Mobarti Primary School and took captive 300 children and teens, ages seven to 17. The gates were locked, and the boys were separated from the girls. It would be their prison for the next four months.

When a coalition army made up of troops from neighbouring Niger and Chad finally retook Damasak in March 2015, all 300 children, as well 100 others — mostly adult women — were kidnapped by retreating Boko Haram forces. 

"No one really knows for certain what happened to them after that," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, deputy Africa director for Human Rights Watch. The non-profit organization has closely documented Boko Haram's atrocities in the region.  

Van Woudenberg said that by now, some of the young boys have likely taken up arms as Boko Haram foot soldiers and the girls have been married off to adult men, forced into sexual slavery or possibly put into a torturous indoctrination program for would-be suicide bombers

Boko Haram Nigeria Damasak

When forces from Chad and Niger entered Damasak, they discovered that 470 people had been killed during the four-month occupation. Some were found, throats slit, in a mass grave. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

The 2014 mass kidnapping was the biggest ever by the extremist group and came only seven months after the abduction of 276 school girls in Chibok, a tragedy that captured the world's attention, if only briefly.

Boko Haram has increasingly put youth at the centre of its seven-year campaign of terror, which has spread into five countries, killed more than 20,000 people and displaced 2.8 million more. 

An entire generation is at risk in a region of Nigeria — a country that boasts the continent's biggest economy — already suffering from severe levels of poverty and unemployment.

'Then they started killing students, too'

At the core of the problem is Boko Haram's obsessive focus on destroying schools, according to Van Woudenberg.

"It's dire, there's no question," she said. "What we've progressively seen over the years is that Boko Haram has become much more vicious and much more brutal in its attacks on education. It has really become the fault line of the conflict."

The focus on education is not entirely surprising. In Hausa, the dominant language of northern Nigeria, Boko Haram roughly translates into "Western education is forbidden."

Damasak Nigeria Boko Haram

It's estimated that up to one million children in northeastern Nigeria are currently out of school. (Emmanuel Braun/Reuters)

But early on, when Boko Haram started to ramp up attacks on civilians in 2009, fighters usually destroyed schools at night when they were empty, according to research from Human Rights Watch. 

"That evolved, though. It all became far more targeted," Van Woudenberg said. "They started going after teachers of 'un-Islamic' subjects. There were instances of militants hunting certain teachers by name and gunning them down in front of students. Then they started killing students, too." 

'Ultimate tactic of intimidation'

To date, Boko Haram has killed at least 611 teachers. More than 910 schools have been destroyed, another 1,500 closed by communities fearing an attack. And in its war against the extremist group, the Nigerian military has also taken over schools, converting them to barracks and command centres.

Estimates by UN agencies and non-profit groups suggest nearly one million school-age children in northeastern Nigeria have been forced from their places of learning. Most of them have been out of school for at least a year, some for much longer.

"Attacks on schools and students are the ultimate tactic of intimidation, practically and symbolically," said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Washington, D.C.-based Africa Center for Strategic Studies.

"And the carnage is exacerbating problems in a region already facing many social and economic challenges."

Child suicide bombers

There are some signs of hope. Boko Haram has lost much of the territory it captured in recent years. A coalition of troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon continues to drive the group deeper into the most remote reaches of the northeast. 

In some areas, schools are reopening or children are regaining access to a "rudimentary education" provided by international aid groups, says Van Woudenberg. 

Chilbok Bring Back our Girls Nigeria

The kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok sparked a global campaign to pressure the Nigerian government to rescue them. There's no still sign of what happened to them or the 400 women and children taken by Boko Haram from Damasak. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

But those gains seem to be pushing Boko Haram to adopt an even more disturbing strategy. According to a new UNICEF report, Boko Haram used 44 children as suicide bombers in the last year, a tenfold increase from the year before. Three quarters of them were girls. 

"To some extent, the use of kids represents desperation on their part," said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

"But the unfortunate reality is that using kids as suicide bombers works. They attract less scrutiny from security forces. They can be manipulated and threatened. And there's a psychological factor: we have a connection to our children that is deeper than any other."

Nigeria solider

The Nigerian military has occupied schools, transforming them into barracks or command centres. Aid groups have called for an end to this practice. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

There's still no sign of the 300 kids abducted in Damasak. Nor is there word of the 219 school girls still unaccounter for from the Chibok kidnapping. 

Van Woudenberg says the Nigerian government must follow through on its promise to rescue as many children as possible and protect those still vulnerable to Boko Haram's reach. 

"If they don't, we're going to be facing a much longer term problem — one that will span generations," she said.

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