The last time Manasseh Allen saw his teenage cousin was at a family wedding two years ago.
She was a shy girl focused on her studies, Allen recalled, and the moment the wedding was over, she rushed back to her school to study for exams.
Only days later, Boko Haram fighters stormed her school in the Nigerian town of Chibok, torching the buildings and kidnapping Allen’s cousin, Maryamu Wavi, along with nearly 300 other girls, most of whom have not been heard from since.
The mass abduction, on April 14, 2014, of the 276 girls was just one of hundreds of acts of brutality that Boko Haram has rained down on West Africa in recent years. But it captured the world’s attention and horror like no other, spurring an international campaign with the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and even drawing first lady Michelle Obama to the cause.
Ever since, protesters have regularly marched outside government buildings and along grassy medians in Nigeria’s capital.
“BRING BACK OUR GIRLS NOW & ALIVE,” proclaimed a banner carried by protesters marching Thursday in the capital of Abuja, using the phrase that made the captives a worldwide cause.
In Chibok, some parents of the girls joined Vice President Yemi Osinbajo and other officials at the burned-out school to pray for the safe return of the victims.
Since the abductions, other nations, including the United States, have joined Nigeria’s battle against Boko Haram. Drones fly over Sambisa Forest, where intelligence officials believe fighters are hiding the girls, and soldiers are freeing villages from Boko Haram control.
Yet two years later, nearly all of the Chibok schoolgirls are still missing.
“Nobody knows where they are,” said Garba Shehu, a spokesman for President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria. “I don’t know where they are. I don’t know. But we are hoping if they are found in one location, they should be rescued.”
The government says it has been scrutinizing a video that was apparently made in late December in which schoolgirls recite their names and say whether they have converted to Islam.
Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture, said the government questioned whether the video was actually filmed a long time ago, arguing that the teenagers shown in it looked the same as they did two years ago.
The video raised hopes among the families that negotiations between the government and Boko Haram over the girls’ release were moving along.
“As long as we have not closed our search for the girls, of course we’ll keep talking,” Mohammed said. But he sounded a note of caution about the video, saying the government had received a similar one last summer and had otherwise been inundated with tips.
“Most of these claims, they turn out not to be true,” he said.
But the video purported to be from December has heartened some families.
Ayuba Alamson, a guardian of several relatives, all kidnapped, recognized two of them in the video. “I was full of joy and had to fight back tears,” he said. “All the 15 girls were definitely among the Chibok schoolgirls and two of them are my nieces. They are cousins.”
“Seeing the 15 girls on the video has strengthened us as parents and guardians that our daughters are alive. It has also imbued us with hope that one day our daughters will be free.
“We now look up to the Nigerian government to use whatever powers and means to secure the release of our daughters whose abduction has shattered our lives,” Alamson said.
A mother of one of the kidnapped girls, Esther Yakubu, said the video renewed her hope: “My daughter is not among the girls in the video, but seeing some of the girls in the video has given me more courage and faith that our girls are alive and one day we will be reunited with them. As a mother I will never stop hoping that my daughter will be returned to me someday.
“The video has indeed boosted our morale and increased our optimism to all-time high.”
One of the Chibok girls, identified only as “Saa,” escaped Boko Haram by jumping off a truck that was taking the captives away. She said in a statement that she recognized three of her classmates in the purported December video.
“The moment I saw them and recognized their faces, Saratu Ayuba, Jummai Mutah and Kwazigu Hamman, I started crying, with tears of joy rolling down from my eyes, thanking God for their lives,” she said in a statement on the Facebook page of the Education Must Continue Initiative.
Boko Haram has killed and kidnapped thousands in a campaign of violence in recent years as it seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate in Africa’s most populous country of 170 million people that is divided almost equally between mostly Christians in the south and Muslims in the north. It has forced young men to be its fighters and girls to be sex slaves or even suicide bombers
But it was the mass kidnap in Chibok that grabbed the world’s attention.
A social media campaign, #BringBackOurGirls, reached to the White House, where Michelle Obama tweeted in May 2014: “Our prayers are with the missing Nigerian girls and their families. It’s time to (hash)BringBackOurGirls.”
The two-year wait for the girls to be found has been maddening for their relatives and friends, who complain the government has done very little to keep them informed of any attempts to locate and rescue them.
“Nobody can tell where those girls are,” said Alamson, whose two cousins, Ruth Amos and Mary Ali, were abducted. His sister and another cousin were abducted as well, but escaped the morning after the kidnapping.
Alamson said he still cries when he sees or talks to other parents of the girls. At his little sister’s wedding recently, he said, he cried because she reminded him of his missing cousins.
“Without serious provocation, I will drop tears,” said Alamson, who is from Chibok.
In 2014, Allen said, he arrived in Chibok while the school building was still smoldering to look for Wavi, who he said was about 17 at the time, and another cousin who also attended the school. He was too late. Both girls were long gone, Wavi having been carried off in a pickup truck among a small group of girls who were the first to be kidnapped.
Wavi’s father is blind, so Allen said he had cared for her and sponsored her education at the boarding school in Chibok. She was the first girl in her family to attend school and hoped one day to become a doctor.
“It was just a village school, but she really wanted to continue her studies,” Allen said. “She had that passion.”
In the weeks after the attack, Boko Haram released a video of some of the captured girls. In Maiduguri, officials assembled relatives of the girls to view it. Allen studied it carefully, recognizing his other cousin, who goes by the name Jummai Musa. There were no images of Wavi, he said.
“These are small girls who went to school,” Allen said. “They’ve done nothing wrong.”
In the months after the attack, more than four dozen of the girls from the Chibok school managed to escape their captors, but 219 others have never been heard from.
Yet relatives have been taunted by rumors of sightings and rescues that have often turned out to be false. Last month, word spread that two abducted girls had turned up in the town of Monguno claiming to be Chibok schoolgirls. But the military announced they were from another town.
The parents of a handful of missing girls have in past months received calls from phone numbers that belonged to their daughters, said Yakubu Nkeki, the chairman of the Abducted Chibok Girls Parents’ Movement for Rescue.
Nkeki said he did not know what to make of the calls from the girls’ old numbers, adding that he has been discussing with the parents what to do about them.
He has not approached the military about the calls because many of the family members were reluctant to deal with the soldiers. Many citizens are distrustful of the military, which has been accused of killing and imprisoning innocent people in its hunt for Boko Haram fighters.
Some of the girls’ families have endured even more losses since the abductions. Eighteen of the girls’ parents have died since the kidnapping, some of natural causes and some at the hands of Boko Haram.
“Two years on, the Chibok girls have come to symbolize all the civilians whose lives have been devastated by Boko Haram,” said Amnesty International’s Nigeria director, M.K. Ibrahim.
The girls are thought to be in the remote Sambisa forest in northeastern Nigeria. Although the country’s military has dislodged militants from cities and towns, a search-and-rescue operation in the forest is thought to be far more difficult.
Education has been a particular target of Boko Haram, whose name loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden.” In the north of Nigeria, elites had traveled to Britain for education and then returned to rule over the poverty-stricken area. Founders of Boko Haram were rebelling against that government system.
The militants’ rampages through the area have destroyed more than 910 schools and forced at least 1,500 more to close, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday. The group has also abducted dozens of other schoolgirls and slaughtered numerous schoolboys. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 611 teachers have been deliberately targeted and killed because of their jobs.
In Chibok, what little of the Government Secondary School that Boko Haram did not destroy has been demolished by authorities with promises to build a new school. Nearly two years later, the only signs of construction are piles of blocks waiting beside the rubble.
There are no visible signs in Chibok of the international outcry that followed the girls’ abduction — no slogans painted on walls or posters hung on the streets. When locals talk about life in Chibok, they complain about not feeling safe, even with the military garrisoned in the village and stationed at roadblocks on the main road.
They say that with the secondary school destroyed, their children — like the thousands of others in the region whose education has been limited or halted because of Boko Haram – are either forced to travel to other towns to attend school, or do not go to school at all.
The Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post contributed to this report.