Mothers marched Wednesday in Nigeria to protest government inaction more than two weeks after 200 school girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, a terror group operating with near impunity in the region — and which has reportedly sold many of the girls into slavery or marriage for as little as $12.
The rally came on the same day that the U.S. State Department released its annual global terrorism report, which names Boko Haram as one of the most dangerous groups in the world — ranking next to the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda factions in Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula — and said they the group was responsible for at least 1,000 deaths in 2013.
"Boko Haram" translates to "Western Education is Sinful," so it has been attacking Nigerian schools since its founding in the early 2000s. But the April 14 attack at the Government Girls Secondary School in the Nigerian town of Chibok sent shocks around the world: More than 200 girls were taken, and weeks later it's still unclear where they are.
"We want our girls to come home alive — not in body bags."
"There are still at least 230 girls being held," Mausi Segun, Nigeria researcher for Human Rights Watch, told NBC News from Nigeria. "Some of them have been taken across the border to Cameroon. Some of them have been taken to Chad. A few of them are still in the country, but their whereabouts [are] difficult to ascertain at this time."
The girls' identities have been withheld by the Nigerian government, which cites security concerns.
"We know little about the girls except they were in the highest class of secondary school in Nigeria," said Segun. "Most of them are between the ages of 16 and 18 years old."
AFP - Getty Images
A still from a video obtained by news agency AFP shows a man claiming to be Abubakar Shekau, the current leader of Boko Haram.
According to community leaders in Nigeria, the young women are being forced to marry the Islamic extremists who kidnapped them.
The students are being sold for 2,000 naira — about $12 — to marry the fighters, Halite Aliyu of the Borno-Yobe People's Forum told The Associated Press in Lagos.
She said reports of mass weddings are coming from villagers in the Sambisa Forest, on Nigeria's border with Cameroon, where Boko Haram is known to have hideouts.
"The latest reports are that they have been taken across the borders, some to Cameroon and Chad," Aliyu said.
Pogu Bitrus, a community elder in Chibok, the town where the girls were abducted, told the BBC that some of the girls "have been married off to insurgents [in] a medieval kind of slavery."
"You go and capture women and then sell them off," he said.
One local community leader told The Associated Press that abductors had said in a message that two of the girls have died from snake bites.
Meanwhile, anger at the government over their failure to protect or rescue the girls moved hundreds of mothers and others in Lagos to march Wednesday to Nigeria's National Assembly in protest. Hundreds more also marched in Kano, Nigeria's second city in the north. "The leaders of both houses said they will do all in their power, but we are saying two weeks already have passed. We want action now," said activist Mercy Asu Abang.
"We want our girls to come home alive — not in body bags," she said.
One senator from the region said the government needs international help to rescue the girls.
The government must do "whatever it takes, even seeking external support, to make sure these girls are released," Sen. Ali Ndume said. "The longer it takes, the dimmer the chances of finding them, the longer it takes the more traumatized the family and the abducted girls are."
Tina Kaidanow, ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism for the U.S. State Department, told NBC News on Wednesday that the Obama administration continues to "work very closely with the government of Nigeria to give them as much assistance as we can and to urge them to do what they can do, both within the frame of rule of law."
That frame is important, because, as counterterrorism expert and former Bush administration official Michael Leiter pointed out, the Nigerian government has varied between inaction and overkill.
"The latest reports are that they have been taken across the borders, some to Cameroon and Chad."
"The problem is that the government's writ of authority is really relatively narrow, and they have problems in the south in the Nigerian delta, and they have problems in the north with Islamic extremists, and they can't control all these areas," Leiter said Wednesday on NBC News' "Andrea Mitchell Reports."
"And frankly when they have, lots of their actions have been almost as ruthless as Boko Haram's," he said. "They have gone in with very little discretion, and they have killed lots of people — fueling some of the radicalization that we've seen in the north over the past five years."
AFOLABI SOTUNDE / Reuters
Women react during a protest Wednesday outside Nigeria's Parliament in Abuja demanding that security forces search harder for 200 school girls abducted by Islamist militants two weeks ago.
— with Catherine Chomiak and the Associated Press
First published April 30 2014, 2:01 PM