The almost 300 schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria may be captives in what one local newspaper has called the evil forest, a mysterious corner of the country dotted with tents and lined with tunnels to house and move armed fighters.
It is the Sambisa Forest, home to large populations of African wildlife — monkeys, antelopes, elephants, ostriches, poisonous snakes — and, for a century or more, robbers and smugglers who found easy passage into Cameroon.
It is not prohibitively dense with vegetation, but it is certainly dangerous, and anyone attempting a rescue operation there must be prepared for guerrilla warfare, one expert said.
“It’s not a tropical rain forest. It’s not the Amazon. It is very accessible,” said Kyari Mohammed, a professor of history at a Nigerian university who has written about Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group that kidnapped the girls.
But he added: “You can’t fight in the Sambisa using, let’s say, drones or helicopters. You need to put troops on the ground who are willing to fight physically on the ground. It will take some level of courage, a willingness to take some casualties.”
Complicating the matter, Boko Haram reside not just in the forest but in nearby mountains near the Cameroon border. It is entirely possible that the girls could already be split among sites, and among distant camps within the forest, the professor said.
The Sambisa forest itself covers 23,000 square miles — eight times the size of Yellowstone National Park or roughly equal to the area of West Virginia — and is nestled in the northeast of Nigeria, near where it touches Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
The members of Boko Haram, who are violently opposed to Western education, and many of whom have been expelled from more urban sections of the country, live there in small, makeshift camps, in tents and huts.
They know the terrain well, better than the Nigerian military, and can melt easily into surrounding local populations that they have terrorized before, the professor said by phone Wednesday.
Anyone approaching is likely to be seen, he said, and word would quickly spread to other camps, said Mohammed, who teaches history at the Modibbo Adama University of Technology in Nigeria and has interviewed former Boko Haram captives.
The girls were abducted April 15 from their secondary school in northeast Nigeria. More than 50 managed to escape, but more than 270 are believed to be held by the Boko Haram, who have promised to sell them into slavery.
The United States said Tuesday that it is sending technical experts and law enforcement who specialize in intelligence and hostage negotiations. The U.S. contingent does not include armed forces.
U.S. military were working in Nigeria well before the kidnappings, and are “consulting” with the Nigerians on possible action regarding the girls, U.S. military officials told NBC News.
The officials said that the U.S. military is planning, but that “no decisions have been made” to deploy combat forces to rescue the girls.
It is a near-certainty that the U.S. will deploy surveillance drones to take part in overhead intelligence-gathering, one senior official said.
The forest was meant by British colonials to be a game reserve. Today about 200 square miles, roughly the size of Lake Tahoe, has been set off for that purpose.
It is a refuge for elephants and the last stronghold of the ostrich in Nigeria. It is also home to giant crustaceans and patches of thick, thorny bushes.
Parents of the schoolgirls have said they have little confidence in the government of President Goodluck Jonathan. The Nigerian military has so far been unwilling to accept casualties and use ground troops to clear the forest of militants, Mohammed said.
A week after the abductions, some of the parents trekked into the forest, according to an account in the British newspaper The Guardian.
They armed themselves with machetes and knives but turned back after they were warned by locals in the forecast that they would be taken out by the sophisticated guns of the militants.
One of the young women who escaped abduction by jumping off the back of a truck told The Guardian about entering the forest.
“Each time we got to a village, they stopped and started shooting people and burning their houses,” said the woman, Godiya Usman, 18.
“When we got to another village, they started shooting. I jumped down and I was expecting my friends to jump too, but they didn’t. I just started crying and running into the bush.”
Polly DeFrank and Jim Miklaszewski of NBC News contributed to this report. The Associated Press also contributed.
First published May 7 2014, 8:05 AM