GOMBE, NIGERIA —
The world waits to see if Nigeria can negotiate the release of the 219 Chibok school girls taken by militant sect Boko Haram in April.
But activists say those girls are the tip of the iceberg and Boko Haram has taken hundreds of young men, women and children, using various forms of coercion or enticement, since the insurgency began in 2009.
The practice has intensified in the past year as militants have seized control of towns and villages in the northeast.
Boko Haram took Hajjah Hafsatou Bube’s two teenage sons. She saw them round up 20 boys in all the day they took her town of Gwoza almost two months ago.
“I begged them: 'Leave these boys. They are students. They attend Islamic school.' And they said, 'But that is what we want. We want them to also go into our Islamic school,'" said Bube.
Her eyes glisten. She says another mother with her collapsed. Their sons had no choice but to go.
Hajjah rents a few rooms in Gombe now. Whole neighborhoods of displaced northeasterners have risen up on the outskirts of this state capital in the past five years.
A few hundred others, some more recent arrivals, live at a state-run camp.
Thirty-three-year-old Abdouramane Musa came on foot from Michika near the border with Cameroon. He hid in the house when militants seized the town in September.
“They were going house to house, searching rooms for able-bodied men. When they came, I jumped out through the back door and escaped," said Musa.
As he ran, he saw bodies, beheaded.
Many at this camp in Gombe come from Damboa, a Borno state district and town of the same name about 200 kilometers to the northeast.
Seventy-five-year-old Alhaji Abubakar Umar leans on his cane, the sharp-eyed patriarch of a six-family farm. They left it all behind. Boko Haram took four of his nephews.
“I have no hope. We haven’t heard from them in three months, since they left. I don’t think we will see them again. We leave it to God," said Umar.
He says his nephews were farmers and fathers, not fighters. But those who resist are killed.
Activists working with men who have later escaped say the men report being given some training and say Christians are forced to convert. They say Boko Haram makes the new recruits charge out front in battle, a kind of human shield.
Locals say Boko Haram has used other methods, too, to get men to join as they have gobbled up territory this year.
A resident of the Damboa district, Musa Ibrahim, says Boko Haram would try to entice the young men out in the villages, promising them money if they join, as much as $1,200 (200,000 naira). He says they would also come around to “tax” the communities - telling them contribute food or a certain number of able-bodied men or else.
Boko Haram took over the district capital Damboa in July. They ravaged the town, which some say they accused of helping the military. It was similar to other raids across Borno state: burn the houses, loot, grab teenage girls, kill the men or conscript them.
Duniya Wanangu Talala waves his hands around him as he illustrates where the bullets were flying as he ran, militants in pursuit on a motorcycle.
“I even hold the hand of my children. They say, 'Leave me, they are only looking for men.' They are not after women. Even the women, they are not killing them. Only men. Even a small boy, if they get, they will kill him," said Talala.
A group of militants tried to take his oldest daughter, Falmata. She’s 15. The men broke down the door and ransacked the house looking for her father.
Falmata lied. She said she was all her siblings had.
“I was shaking. I was so scared.” Her hand moves under her black hijab as she mimed her heart pounding. “I was shaking all over. When they noticed, they said, 'Calm down. Since your father is dead, we will leave you.' They said in fact they would leave some men to guard us. Nobody will touch you, they said," said Falmata.
Her mother Zainab was away that day at a nearby village. She cries as she listens to Falmata talk.
Falmata and her siblings fled the town the next morning at dawn.
The army says it retook Damboa, but armed men attacked there again on October 19. People here in Gombe wait. It is not safe to go home.