Gunmen raided Kuriga school just before classes were about to start and herded dozens of students into the bush
Gunmen raided Kuriga school just before classes were about to start and herded dozens of students into the bush AFP News

Students were just about to settle into their classes after singing Nigeria's national anthem when the gunshots rang out. Then chaos erupted.

It was around 8:00 am on Thursday when dozens of gunmen dressed in military uniforms rode on motorbikes into the school grounds in Kuriga, a quiet agrarian village 100km outside the northwestern Nigerian city of Kaduna.

More gunmen arrived from the rear on foot, blocking all exits as shots were fired into the air.

By the time the early morning attack was over, more than 280 schoolchildren had been rounded up and kidnapped by the armed group in the latest mass abduction in Nigeria's northwest.

It was one of the largest recent mass kidnappings by gunmen known locally as bandits in Nigeria where criminal gangs target schools, colleges and highways as they hunt for large groups of victims to make ransom demands.

Nigeria's security forces on Sunday were still hunting for Kuriga school victims in forests that spread across Kaduna and other states.

In Kaduna, Kuriga's unfenced school, with its dilapidated five blocks, housed primary and secondary school sections. Security was basic as in many such rural schools.

"We initially thought they were soldiers and began hailing them and shouting 'May God be with you'," said Maryam Usman, an 11-year old pupil who escaped.

Then bandits began shooting in the air as they attacked the school where 1,000 schoolchildren where about to start classes. Children and teachers scattered to escape.

Some, including Usman, hid in nearby homes, but the attackers pursued them and dragged them out, hitting them with whips.

"One of the men held on to my hijab (veil) and started dragging me on the ground while I tried to resist," Usman told AFP, sobbing outside her house.

"I managed to remove my hijab and ran off. That was how I escaped."

Mustapha Abubakar had just taken his seat in the class when he said he saw a convoy of almost 20 motorcycles with men in military uniforms coming into the school.

Abubakar, an 18-year old secondary school student, was among the hundreds seized by the attackers and herded into the forest as they were beaten with horsewhips. But he managed to escape.

"We trekked for hours in the scorching heat until we were all exhausted," Abubakar told AFP while sheltering under a tree along the lone road that runs through the village.

The kidnappers separated girls from boys, Abubakar said.

"There were more girls than boys."

Map of Nigeria locating the town of Kuriga
Map of Nigeria locating the town of Kuriga AFP News

On three occasions, a military fighter jet flew over but their captors told them to lay on the ground and ordered them to take off their white school shirts to hide them better from the air.

He managed to escape by diving into dense vegetation and walked for hours before arriving at a village close to Kuriga where he slept the night before reaching home the next morning.

"I still have hallucinations in the night," he said. "I keep hearing sounds of motorcycles outside my house as if they are coming to take me."

Jibril Ahmad, a 20-year old farmer who was standing outside close to the school when the gunmen arrived, gave a similar account.

"I saw them riding into the school, firing gunshots in the air and gathering confused children and beating them with whips," Ahmad said as he looked over the deserted school premises.

Ahmad, a member of the village's community protection force, said he ran into house for his hunting gun to engage the attackers along with other vigilantes.

"One of us was shot in the head and killed while another was injured in the leg during the fight," he said.

As the kidnappers were snatching up the students, parents watched helplessly, with mothers wailing and pleading with the attackers to spare their children, residents said.

"We watched while they were taking our children away, we could not do anything," said Amina Abdullahi, whose two children were among the kidnapped.

"We don't know what our children are going through."

For 76-year old Abdullahi Musa, the school's security guard, it was a double nightmare. He was kidnapped while working on his farm outside the village days earlier and was only released by his captors two days before the mass abduction.

He was in the school when the bandits stormed the building.

"We were helpless as they herded the children out of the school into the bush like shepherds with their livestock," Musa said.

Sani Hassan, a teacher in the secondary school section, was having his breakfast just outside when someone raised an alarm.

Hassan said he rushed towards the school through an alleyway but stopped just metres away as kidnappers led away their victims, including one of his colleagues.

"There was nothing I could do. I just stood in a trance-like state and watched in horror," he said. "It was surreal."