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Kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls face serious risks

May 10, 2014 at 7:11 PM EDT
The Nigerian schoolgirls abducted by the extremist group Boko Haram face serious risks including malaria-carrying mosquitoes, unsafe drinking water and poisonous snakes. That’s according to Michelle Faul of the Associated Press, who spoke with Hari Sreenivasan from Lagos, Nigeria about the ongoing situation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Speaking during the weekly presidential radio address, First Lady Michelle Obama said today she and the president are “outraged and heartbroken” about the abduction of 276 Nigerian school girls nearly four weeks ago.

The Islamic militant group, Boko Haram, has claimed responsibility. The United States, France, Britain and China have all offered assistance to find the girls. Nearly 20 Americans and a small British team are already on the ground there aiding in the search.

For more about on this story about the missing girls, we are joined now from Lagos, Nigeria via Skype by Michelle Faul. She is a reporter for the Associated Press.

We’ve heard about the international community sending some resources in. What are these international resources expected to do?

MICHELLE FAUL: Well I think mainly help with intelligence gathering and coordination on the ground. There seems to have been a great failure on the part of Nigeria’s military in acting on information coming from villagers on the ground who say they’ve seen the girls and their abductors.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are some of the challenges in this region? Is it geographic? Is it linguistic? What are some of the difficulties in finding these girls?

MICHELLE FAUL:  Massive. They were initially taken into the Sambisa Forest. To give you an idea, that are is eight time the size of Yellowstone National Park. Very dense forest; family members who went in there to try to find the girls said it is so dense that it is actually dark there, the sunlight doesn’t come through.

But we’ve heard that some of the places they’ve been taken to – including across the borders into Chad and Cameroon – now there you’re talking about semi-arid region it’s on the brink of the Sahara Desert. So you talking a massive, massive area and it’s like finding a needle in a haystack. And really I think everyone has agreed that the only way that they are going to find these girls is by acting on information from people who’ve seen them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are there any working theories on how someone or some group could keep this large a group quiet or hidden for this long a time? Or have they broken this group up into small parts, do you think?

MICHELLE FAUL: The reports that we have had, and of course these are all unverified I must make clear, are that they’ve been broken up into smaller groups because it would be pretty unmanageable. We’re talking about currently 276 girls – 53 escaped – there were more than 300 who were abducted in the first place. And Monday night will be the month-long anniversary of the kidnappings.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Do the authorities still think that the girls are alive?

MICHELLE FAUL: President Jonathan raised a lot of eyebrows in a television program on Sunday when he said he was happy to know that the girls were unharmed. He was then unable to say how he would know that since he said that they had no contact with the abductors, did not know who the abductors are. So it was a rather strange thing to say.

I have spoken with an intermediary who has negotiated hostage releases in the past. He’s an Islamic scholar up in the north, and he said he’s been getting messages from Boko Haram that included that two of the girls have died of snakebite and that about 20 of them are ill.

If you can imagine, they are probably drinking water from rivers and wells, so not clean water. They are living out in the open. They are being moved about, we’re being told, two or three days, which means they are probably not eating properly. In the forest they would be dealing with malaria-carrying mosquitos and the in desert there is incredible heat.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So while we see bits and pieces of frustration from the parents mounting, is that frustration spread throughout the country? Is the whole country paying attention to this story right now?

MICHELLE FAUL: Oh, it has grown over the past couple of weeks. The longer these girls are held without rescue the outrage has grown tremendously. Nigerians are social media addicts. There’s a massive campaign that has now gone international but was started at home with the hashtag #bringbackourgirls, I’m sure you’ve heard about it.

There are daily protest in various capitols. The other day we had schoolchildren in Calabar state in the southeast protesting. There are daily protests in Abuja, the capitol, including some of the parents of the missing girls. In some of the other main cities Nigerians have made clear their huge disappointment in the failure of the government and the military in this case.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Does this disappointment have political consequences for the administration there?

MICHELLE FAUL: I wonder if we’ll see that. President Jonathan hasn’t said that, he’s expected to be running for president again for election in 2015. Campaigning has already started. I’ll give you an example the kind of thing that has made people really angry in Nigeria. The girls were abducted several hours after a bomb blast in Abuja, the capital, killed at least 75 people and the nation was just reeling from this double whammy of attacks. And the next day President Jonathan went to Kano, a city in the north, and was photographed dancing at a party rally. Well, people couldn’t believe it. They thought the nation is in mourning and he is partying?

HARI SREENIVASAN: You know there were reports from Amnesty International yesterday saying that the government had four hours warning. Is that gaining traction there? Are there ways to verify it? Are people hearing about that report?

MICHELLE FAUL: I’m aware of the report. We have reported and quoted a local government official saying that he got a phone call of warning two hours before the attack. He makes the point that that would have been plenty of time for reinforcements to come from the nearest barracks, which is about 50 kilometers away and about an hour’s drive away along a dirt road. When he got that telephone warning Bana Lawal, the chairman, alerted the 15 soldiers who were guarding Chibok town. He said that those 15 soldiers fought valiantly.

He said there were more than 200 fighters from Boko Haram who attacked the town. The soldiers held them off for two hours until they ran out of ammunition and one of the soldiers was killed. When they ran out of ammunition, the soldiers ran for their lives and that left the road open to the school where were abducted. And the Chairman says that those soldiers fought just believing that they were just holding off these people until the reinforcements came.

Now the military came out with a statement last night in response to the Amnesty International report and they say in that statement that reinforcements were sent from Maiduguri, now that’s a good 120 kilometers from Chibok, not the nearest barracks. And they claim that those reinforcements were ambushed and there was a fierce firefight and that was why those reinforcements never made it to Chibok. So they are not denying that they didn’t get the warning.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michelle Faul of the Associated Press joining us via Skype from Lagos Nigeria, thanks so much.

MICHELLE FAUL: You are most welcome.