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Nigerian children fear going to school as Boko Haram hostage crisis drags on

Mohammed Chiari, commander of a vigilante group of traditional hunters, poses for a picture at the hunters' camp in Maiduguri May 21, 2014. About 100 traditional hunters from villages in Borno state have gathered in a camp in Maiduguri and volunteered to hunt for Boko Haram to the local government. The local government gives them two meals per day, they say.


In the Nigerian capital, far from the village where more than 200 schoolgirls were kidnapped, Tsambido Hosea Abana faces a tiny rebellion from his children. They don't want to go to school any more.

Five of his nieces and cousins were among those kidnapped from the Chibok village school by Boko Haram militants. And now he has to plead with his two children, 7 and 9 years old, to persuade them to go to school.

"They say they will not go to school," said Mr. Abana, the Chibok community chairman in the capital. "I say, 'Why?' They say, 'They are abducting children.' I say, "No, no, no, that's not in Abuja, please go.' But that's their feeling."

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As the kidnapping crisis drags into its sixth week with no end in sight, some family members of the kidnapped girls are slipping into despair. "I'm beginning to lose hope," Mr. Abana said in an interview on the sidelines of the daily rally by the "Bring Back Our Girls" campaign. "I can't understand the direction that it's going in."

The parents of the abducted girls had assumed that the hostage crisis would end within a week, he said. "It's taking too long. They were thinking the government would intervene quickly to rescue their children. But the government has not rescued their children. Some are even saying they won't allow their remaining children to go to school again, because of the fear."

U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Wednesday that he has deployed 80 military personnel to Chad, just across the border from the northeastern Nigerian states where Boko Haram has its strongholds. He said the U.S. military will help with surveillance, intelligence and reconnaissance aircraft "for missions over northern Nigeria and the surrounding area" to search for the kidnapped girls.

Unconfirmed reports in the Nigerian media on Wednesday suggested that Nigerian army special forces had tracked the missing schoolgirls to three Boko Haram camps to the west of Lake Chad, about 200 kilometres northeast of Chibok. If true, it means that the kidnapped girls have been transported far north of the suspected Boko Haram hideouts in the Sambisa forest, near Chibok, where they were earlier thought to be held.

But finding the location of the girls is just the first and easiest step, Mr. Abana said. If the military tries to rescue the girls, they could be killed, he said.

"The problem is how to take them out of these insurgents' hands. That's the biggest problem. What method are they going to use to take them out unharmed? The insurgents are using these girls as a shield around them."

While the families worry about the fate of their girls, Nigerian campaigners still hold daily meetings in a grassy park in Abuja to map out strategies for intensifying the pressure on the government to rescue the girls.

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They plan to march on the official villa of President Goodluck Jonathan on Thursday, despite concerns that it could trigger a confrontation with police forces. Police tried unsuccessfully to prevent the campaigners from gathering at the park last week, but eventually backed down when the campaigners simply ignored the police orders and threats.

A Nigerian teachers' union, meanwhile, has told its members to boycott all schools on Thursday to protest the abduction of the girls. They plan to hold "Bring Back Our Girls" rallies on Thursday in each of the country's 36 states.

Although it's now 37 days since the kidnapping, the campaigners and community leaders vow to keep up the fight. "Are any of you exhausted?" asked one of the campaign leaders, former World Bank vice-president Oby Ezekwesili, at a rally this week. "No!" the campaigners shouted back.

The campaign has become a global phenomenon, partly through its astute use of social media and celebrity supporters. This week alone, the campaign persuaded Hollywood movie stars such as Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford to hold up "Bring Back Our Girls" signs at the Cannes film festival, while gaining support from groups as diverse as an Oklahoma dance troupe, the ruling party of South Africa and the contestants of Nigerian Idol.

"We're going to keep pressing, we have to keep pressing," Ms. Ezekewesili said in an interview as she waited for the latest rally to begin.

"We lost time in our government's response to the fate of the girls, and we cannot afford to let inertia set in again," she said. "We're pretty discouraged, and it's exhausting, but imagine what these girls have been through in these past 37 days."

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