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A Stolen Generation: Investigating the Tragedy of Nigeria’s Missing Children

VICE News visited northeast Nigeria where thousands of children have completely disappeared, with their fates undocumented and their parents uncertain if they'd even accept them back.
Foto di Sally Hayden/VICE News

"When Boko Haram attacked us in the village everyone was just running helter skelter," Saratu Zakaria told VICE News. "The kids followed their dad but along the way they got lost."

Zakaria, 44, is living in a makeshift camp behind a church in Yola, Adamawa State, northeast Nigeria. She's missing four children: three girls and one boy aged 7, 8, 10, and 16. It's been one year and six months since she saw them.


"There's a place where we normally went to hide, it was like a refuge point for all of us in the village, but the bad guys came to that very spot and they abducted everybody," Zakaria recalled. "A lot of us that are alive today escaped to Cameroon, and from Cameroon they brought us back to Nigeria."

Large numbers of her neighbors were massacred during the assault. "In my presence a lot of women were slaughtered [and an] uncountable number of men," she said.

After being held captive by the Islamic State-affiliated insurgent group Boko Haram for more than eight months, Zakaria managed to escape, fleeing across the border to Cameroon before moving down to Yola. Eventually, she was reunited with her husband.

Though Zakaria had made it to safety, she couldn't celebrate. She made frantic inquiries and discovered there were now two camps for displaced people back in her hometown of Gwoza.

So the mother bravely set off again and traveled nearly 200 miles back to where she started on a mission to find her children. Zakaria scoured the camps, describing her offspring to everyone she met. No one had heard of them.

Meanwhile, reports of murders continued to filter through. "The killings are still ongoing but not as rampant," Zakaria told VICE News, two weeks after she temporarily suspended her search and returned to Yola. "Those Boko Haram guys are still there, especially in Gwoza east. They're still there."


Now Zakaria can only wait. Like the dozens of other parents with missing children that VICE News spoke to in conflict-ridden Borno State and Adamawa State in northeast Nigeria, she doesn't even have any photos of her children — they were incinerated alongside her home.

* * *

As Boko Haram launched attacks on towns and villages over the last seven years while chasing their aim of creating an Islamic caliphate, Nigerians have had to run for their lives. They have scattered in all directions, losing track of who among their neighbors is still alive and who has been brutally murdered.

That pattern has repeated itself across the region. One consequence is that tens of thousands of children are now missing, their fates unknown and disappearances undocumented, while others remain at risk of abduction by militants or traffickers. More still are being denied an education, with many forced to work instead to support their families.

A child lies on a mat in an informal camp for displaced people in Adamawa State. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

The fate of those who manage to escape Boko Haram after being kidnapped isn't clear-cut either. New reports have raised concerns about the detention of children in a military barracks in Borno State capital Maiduguri, many of whom were taken in during mass arrests after they fled from insurgent territories to recaptured towns in the northeast.

An Amnesty International report released on Wednesday states that at least 12 children and babies have died at the notorious Giwa barracks since February 2016 and that more than 120 children remain detained there in dreadful conditions.


VICE News visited a dozen formal and informal internally displaced people (IDP) camps and settlements across Borno State and Adamawa State in April. At each one we met multiple parents who had been separated from their children. Their stories were shocking in their repetition: a simple "I don't know where they are," was the most common refrain.

* * *

In the Dawari settlement in Adamawa State, 335 households have set up camps on land that was previously used for farming.

The IDPs there came from local government areas of Gwoza, Bama, and Madagali. There's some differentiation between them — those people that escaped with money can afford mud bricks to build their huts, while others have crafted shelters out of reeds and wood.

It was about 110 degrees Fahrenheit. A group of men sat on mats in the shade while sand blew past. Several women peered out from between the slats of a nearby hut — tradition keeps the men and women separated.

These 10 men from Gwoza, Borno State, lost 18 children between them as they fled during a Boko Haram attack on their village. They are pictured sitting in the Daware settlement in Adawama State, Nigeria. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Idrisa, a local leader who left the Borno State local government area Gwoza two years ago, remembered the day he fled his home. He was living just 30 miles from Sambisa forest — a known Boko Haram hideout.

"In the night three people attacked my house. It was at 8pm. They came with a gun. One wanted to tie up my hands, another held a gun to my head, like this." He acted out how he had fought them away before running. "My car, my house left behind." Luckily, his four wives and 19 children also made it to safety.


Idrisa was the only one there still united with his family. The other 10 men sitting on mats in the shade were missing 18 children between them. One man's wife and two children have disappeared. "There is no access to Gwoza, so there is no way to go back," he said.

Another man was missing six children as well as his wife. Another lost two wives and three children, while a fourth lost seven children. "I don't know anything about [them]," this man said despondently. "Only God knows." A fifth man witnessed his elder brother and his two wives being killed, while a sixth man saw his 15-year-old son die, murdered in front of him by Boko Haram militants.

* * *

The estimates of the number of women and children who have been abducted by Boko Haram during the insurgency range between 500 and 2,000. UNICEF Nigeria's chief child protection officer Rachel Harvey told VICE News, however, that these figures now seem greatly underestimated, considering that 1,000 children have been rescued since the beginning of 2016 alone.

At the height of its strength in 2014, Boko Haram controlled 19 out of 65 government areas in the northeast, a huge amount of territory, meaning civilians didn't have access to the authorities to report abductions.

Children who are kidnapped by the militants are sometimes used as suicide bombers, with 44 minors carrying out attacks in 2015, more than 75 percent of whom were girls.


In addition to those who have been taken by the insurgents, Harvey said about 20,000 other children have been separated from their families, leaving them unsupported and vulnerable to exploitation. In total, more than half of the 2 million Nigerians currently displaced by Boko Haram are children.

* * *

The name Boko Haram translates loosely as "Western education is forbidden," and the group's militants have repeatedly launched attacks on schools, killing or kidnapping hundreds of students. One consequence of this is that 2,000 schools have now been closed, and more than 1 million children in northeast Nigeria have now been out of education for the last two years.

At the Malkohi settlement in Yola, where 135 mostly Muslim households are camping on land donated to them by a local community, at least 100 children are taking part in "informal schooling." Boys played soccer, while girls huddled in the shade under a tree, chatting.

"They learn the basics: the alphabet and numbers, the national anthem," one of the program's coordinators told VICE News. Some of them will go on to enter formal education, but many won't.

Community leader Idrisa Abdullaha, from Gwoza, said he's worried for the future of the children. "An idle mind is the devil's workshop," he said. "Education is a problem. Some were in high school but had to run down here and don't have the same opportunities now."

Children playing soccer at the Malkohi settlement in Yola, Adamawa State. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

VICE News spoke to three teenagers at the settlement. Mariam Abdullhai, 14, was in third grade when she left Gwoza. Her family fled elsewhere first, so she has just recently arrived at the Adamawa settlement. She isn't getting any education now. "I don't know how to go to school," she said.


None of her friends and classmates has ended up in Yola — she heard that some have relocated to a different state and others stayed behind.

Habiba Umaru, 13, was in fourth grade in Gwoza but here she's been downgraded to second grade — a criticism of the quality of the schooling she was getting before. Her favorite subject is math. Habiba said her parents are supportive and are happy that she is back in education.

Related: Nigeria's Self-Styled Warriors: Meet the Vigilante Army Taking on the World's Deadliest Terror Group

Idrisa Adamu — who has been in the camp for two years and dreams of working as a teacher — was feeling more pessimistic. He misses his friends and relatives from his hometown of Gwoza. "There are two sides of the coin: some are alive and doing well and some are dead," he said. Idrisa, 15, has no way of contacting his friends who stayed behind.

He's still haunted by the afternoon Boko Haram when came to his village. "All I could recall was that when these guys came in everyone was running. We stayed on a mountain for four days — where we had run for refuge — and then went to Maiduguri, to Mubi, to here."

The teenager traveled in just the clothes he was wearing; everything else was left behind.

He's now in fourth grade at school. Each day he carries out domestic chores to help his family, that day he had gone to fetch firewood. "There's no hope we'll go back soon," he said.


* * *

As part of their projects in the northeast, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) provides psychosocial care for some unaccompanied children who have been noted to be isolating themselves.

IOM psychosocial focal point Emmanuel Dmaina told VICE News that the NGO's counselors encourage the minors to draw their thoughts on sheets of paper. The resulting pictures will always be of the army or insurgents, he said, "all the things they've seen during traumatizing periods."

Another challenge that NGOs and volunteers battle with is identifying children who have been separated from their families but then claimed by other adults from their home communities who pose as their parents. While these adults usually mean well, these minors can be particularly at risk

Jerusha Bode, child protection manager with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told VICE News: "The problem we're having at the moment is child labor, because [the adults taking care of them] do not have enough resources," she said.

"One man may have 16 children but only six will be his. The others will be made to farm or to work hawking sachets of water at the market or on a roadside."

A girl at an IDP settlement in Maiduguri, Borno State.(Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Bode said children would tell caseworkers that they are attending school, but "we'll [later] visit the school the child says it attends and find they're not there."

The IRC will often run verification procedures, operating through community leaders, Bode said. They'll check whether the stories told by the children and the adults align, trying to work out whether they're actually related.


Bode has seen parents reunified with their children after spending more than a year apart in different parts of the northeast, so a happy ending is possible.

The situation for children left alone can also become even worse. Bode said she's also heard worrying tales that hint at trafficking: groups of men approaching IDP camps and offering to take as many as 100 children away "to get an education in [Nigerian capital city] Abuja."

When investigated, those offers have not stood up to scrutiny.

* * *

In the UK, Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland said reports of suspected traffickers were to be expected — Nigeria has a high level of people trafficking anyway.

"We know that it's conflict and instability that often pushes people to take chances that they otherwise wouldn't take, and also there are criminals we know operating all over Nigeria who are taking advantage of the fact that there is instability and a lack of opportunity," he told VICE News.

Children play in a government-run IDP camp in Maiduguri, Borno State. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Hundreds of Nigerians are thought to be trafficked into the UK each year. "We see that there are offers being made and promises being made, whether that's work, whether it's education or of great financial reward waiting," said Hyland.

Hyland added that while he wasn't aware of a large number of children or women being taken from northeast Nigeria specifically, young people are common targets, and the most regular smuggling route to Europe from the region does go through northern Nigeria, up through Niger, and into Libya.


"If you feel that desperate and someone comes along and gives you that offer the risks someone will take are extraordinary," Hyland said.

* * *

Unaccompanied minors aren't the only ones at risk. In May, UNICEF declared that 34,512 children in Adamawa State are severely malnourished — mainly those who have been displaced. In 2015, the government said 450 displaced children in Borno State had died of malnutrition, though they later revised that figure down.

VICE News also heard reports of sexual abuse in IDP camps, including seeing hospital files documenting an incident where a 2-year-old was raped by a member of a host community.

Meanwhile, in Maiduguri, an estimated 200,000 children are engaged in begging or hawking on the streets, and the vast majority of these are IDPs.

Faltea, 11, (center) sells bags of kola nuts for 50 naira each. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

Several IRC case workers told VICE News that as many as seven children are kidnapped a day — all from the IDP areas in Maiduguri where the NGO is working directly. The suspicion is that the children are either being taken by Boko Haram or else being kidnapped by those involved in "rituals" which can see children slaughtered and their body parts used to prepare charms or concoctions believed to be magical.

When interviewed by VICE News, a commander of the Civilian JTF — the main vigilante group involved in the fight against Boko Haram — said he hadn't heard of any children being kidnapped from Maiduguri city. However, the same armed group is known themselves for recruiting members as young as 14.


Related: How I Escaped Boko Haram: One Woman's Story

While in Maiduguri, VICE News spoke to two children who labor every day to support their families.

Yabawa Mohammad doesn't know her age, but didn't appear to be more than 10. She sells cooking spices and onions, separated into small plastic bags she carries in a bowl balanced on her head. She lives in the Kushari host community in Maiduguri, and has been there for more than two years.

The day before we spoke, she earned 300 naira (less than $1). Her mother prepares the spice bags. Yabawa doesn't attend school, she trudges around alone every day, and how successful she is determines whether her family will eat.

Yabawa Mohammad, who works selling spices to make money so her family can buy food. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

In the Sulumri host community in the same city, 11-year-old Faltea sells bags of kola nuts for 50 naira each. She's the eldest of six children, and her earnings support her whole family. She brings in between 200 and 300 naira each day, and works from 7am until noon. After that, she attends a local Islamic school, where she studies the Quran. She said that "Western education is too expensive."

When asked how reliant her parents are on her income, Faltea responded: "It's the means of their livelihood — that's how we sustain the family."

Both girls claimed they haven't had any problems with regards customers stealing from them, failing to pay, or posing any other threat to them.

* * *

Close by, in Maiduguri's Giwa barracks, as many as 120 boys aged between 5 and 16 are currently being held incommunicado by the Nigerian authorities, according to the new Amnesty International report. The NGO has called the detention facility a "place of death" because of its poor conditions and high prisoner death tolls. Only seven of the imprisoned children are older than 12, according to Amnesty's sources, and all are being denied access to their families.


One boy described the conditions inside detention, telling Amnesty after his release: "It is hunger and thirst and the weather [the heat] — these are the main problems. The main problem is hunger."

Another boy said: "Food was three times, breakfast, lunch, supper. The food was not enough. There was very little food."

Mass arrests by the military often target men and boys based on their age and profile, rather than because of any proof of guilt. Media reports and witness statements suggest that 162 children have been released from military custody since July 2015, but their time incarcerated can also have longer lasting impacts. These include being the risk of being rejected by their communities due to suspicions that they're supportive of Boko Haram or have some links to the group.

Other NGO workers, who didn't want to be named, also raised concerns to VICE News about the screening processes that often-traumatized children are put through after they are "rescued" by the military, saying the emphasis isn't on family reunification or other care but rather on ascertaining their level of guilt.

* * *

While VICE News heard many heroic stories from mothers like Zakaria who risked their lives during the conflict to save their children, a lot of the estranged fathers were notably more wary about saying they'd welcome back those missing, particularly if they had been taken by Boko Haram.

"Yes, we'd take them back, we'd rejoice," one of the 10 men in Yola told VICE News, explaining that this was primarily because their offspring were very young when they were kidnapped.

However, that group also all agreed that if their children had "matured" and gone through forced conversions to Islam or become involved with Boko Haram activities they wouldn't be as accepting.

An IDP child sleeps in a makeshift home in a half-finished building at the Wuro-Ahi settlement in Fufore, Adawama State, Nigeria. (Photo by Sally Hayden/VICE News)

This attitude was echoed by other fathers that VICE News spoke to, including 65-year-old Haruna Thuma from Gwoza, who is separated from his wife and two children — a girl aged 8 and a boy aged 5. He hasn't seen them in two years.

Speaking in Yola's St. Theresa camp, where 1,000 displaced people are sheltering in the grounds of a Christian church, Thuma said he wasn't going to go searching for his family. "I wouldn't dare going back, it's risky," he said. "Even me, it took the grace of God for me to survive.

"I don't know if my children are alive or…" his sentence trailed off. "I wouldn't know if they are alive or used for something else," he said after another pause.

Thuma then articulated a similar opinion to many of other fathers in the northeast: he would be wary in welcoming his offspring into his life again. "If they're practicing another religion other than Christianity I don't want to have them back," he said, "but if they're willing to be Christians I will."

Related: Boko Haram's War on Women: Abductees Speak of Systematic Rape, Suicide Bombers, and Survival

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd