CHIKUN: The remaining wares of students of Bethel Baptist High School are seen inside the school premises as parent of abducted students pray for the return of their children whom were abducted by gunmen in the Chikun Local Government Area of Kaduna state, northwest Nigeria. - AFP

CHIKUN: Judith is 14, sings in her church choir, dreams of becoming a lawyer and likes nothing more than offering her hairstyling skills to her neighbours. Sophie is one year younger, but already has her mind set on becoming a mechanical engineer despite her family gently pushing her to train as a nurse. The girls are just two of the more than 100 Nigerian children snatched from Bethel Baptist High School nearly two weeks ago, herded by gunmen into the forest after a kidnapping raid on their dormitories.

The July 5 attack in Nigeria's northwest Kaduna state was just the latest mass abduction at a school or college as kidnap gangs seeking quick ransoms zero in on soft targets of young students. Armed kidnappings for ransom along highways, and from homes and businesses now make almost daily newspaper headlines in Africa's most populous country.

But mass school abductions have soared this year, with almost 1,000 students kidnapped, according to UNICEF. Most are released after negotiations but many are still being held in forest hideouts like the Bethel pupils. The list of missing from Bethel makes heartbreaking reading: 121 names, the oldest 19, the youngest just 10. Most are under 15. "I am a mother and I would not like anybody to take my child away from me for one day. Imagine the trauma," Hassana Ayuba, whose daughter Judith was taken, told AFP. "The children are harmless, the children did not offend anybody."

The attack has devastated the tightly-knit, religiously faithful community. At the school, parents hold daily hours-long prayers and vigils and call for President Muhammadu Buhari to help free the children. Outside, in the school yard, parents have collected a pile of shoes and flipflops their kidnapped children left behind. "When I heard and received a phone call at 1 am of that fateful day, I thought it was a joke," said Wobia Jibrailu Ibrahim, whose youngest daughter Sophie, not her real name, was taken. "I can't just imagine how somebody who is a parent can put these young children on foot and march them into the bush."

Early morning shock

Most of the children were sleeping in the school's separate dormitories for boys and girls when the gunmen smashed a hole in the outer wall, opening fire randomly as they raided inside. In many past school attacks, bandits struck in the night or early morning, marching children and students deep into forest hideouts where they negotiated for their release.

At Bethel, police said security guards were overpowered by the gunmen, who as usual, arrived in large numbers and heavily armed. Most Bethel parents rushed to school in the early morning when initial reports suggested 140 pupils were taken away. In the confusion, some students who were away from the dorms taking exams were initially counted among those abducted. Police said 25 students and a female teacher were rescued as security forces gave chase.

Reverend Joseph Hayab, the head of the Christian Association of Nigeria local state chapter, told AFP kidnappers had been in touch with ransom demands. They used the abducted head boy's cellphone to contact the school. "We have told them there is no way we can afford such money in 50 years," Hayab said. Most of the children are very young, said the reverend, whose own son, Sunday Hayab, came face to face with a gunman at his Bethel dormitory before escaping.

"You have minors facing this challenge. Can you imagine the trauma? How will they think of going to school again?" Hayab and school officials said they agreed to send abductors rice, beans and oil to feed the students sleeping out in the bush. "When it was raining I was imagining whether the rain is falling on their heads... I was imagining how she is feeling," Ayuba said. "See me, I am cold, I have to use a blanket to cover my body. What happened to my daughter now? What is she using to cover her body?"

No to negotiations

The surge in Nigerian school kidnappings has revived memories of the jihadist abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls from a school in Chibok in northeast Borno state in 2014. But while that case sparked the global #BringBackOurGirls movement and celebrity support, there is no such solace for parents like those in the Kaduna case.

Kidnappings are just one of the challenges facing Buhari's security forces who are battling a grinding Islamist insurgency in the northeast and separatist tensions in parts of the south. Soon after the Kaduna attack, Buhari ordered security forces to work for the safe release of all kidnap victims. Criminal gangs, known locally as bandits, have long terrorised parts of northwest and central Nigeria, looting villages and stealing cattle. Some northern state governors have tried to negotiate, offering gunmen amnesty for them to disarm. But most peace deals have failed.

Kaduna state governor Nasir Ahmad El-Rufai has been one of the most vocal in refusing any ransoms, leading to speculation his state may have been targeted more. But that has angered families. When Rufai's security commissioner visited Bethel, crowds of shouting parents forced his convoy to reverse and withdraw. "I am so worried sometimes I lack the words to express myself," Ibrahim said.

"But I want to say the government in Nigeria promised to protect lives and properties, maybe we can say they have failed us." For now he spends his days waiting at the school, hardly leaving the grounds. "Since then I have not gone back," he said at the school. "I feel that if I am going back, then I should be going back with my daughter." - AFP