ABUJA, Nigeria — Frustration and despair over the fate of hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamic extremists in northern Nigeria is forcing families to organize the rescue themselves.
"We are trying to search for our daughters on our own," said a mother of one of the girls, asking to remain unidentified out of fear of causing her daughter further harm. "Soon we will be heading to the forest.
"We heard rumors that they are ready to negotiate with us if we ourselves go to the forest," she added. "But they threatened to kill or sell the girls if the government uses force or ambushes them."
Still, it's likely the families will have to travel farther than the vast Sambesa Forest to find their daughters: U.S. State Department officials said late last week there were signs the girls had been split up and dispersed to other countries — such as Cameroon and Chad — in the four weeks since they were taken.
During that time, families say Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan did little to search for the girls.
"For a good 11 days, our daughters were sitting in one place," Enoch Mark, the father of two girls abducted from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School in northern Nigeria on April 14, told the Associated Press. "They camped them near Chibok, not more than 30 kilometers (19 miles), and no help in hand."
That delay in action is compounding growing domestic and international outrage over the kidnappings and the Nigerian government's response.
U.S. and U.K. officials said they quickly offered help in the search after more than 300 girls were kidnapped from the school, but assistance was refused for nearly a month.Help was offered "from day one," said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week.
Most of the abducted girls were between 16 and 18 years old. About 50 of those girls escaped and 276 remain captive. A few days later, Boko Haram allegedly kidnapped another eight girls — between the ages of 12 and 15 — from a nearby village, according to Nigerian press.
The reason behind the attacks? Because the girls were in school.
In Hausa, a local African language, Boko Haram means "Western education is forbidden." The group aims to establish a new Islamic state in northern Nigeria. The Islamic extremists have abducted girls before, but never on this scale.
Agence France Press obtained a video of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau taking credit for the mid-April incident. "I abducted your girls," said Shekau. "There is a market for selling humans. Allah says I should sell. He commands me to sell."
The kidnappings have led to questions about the government's failure to suppress the group, which has terrorized locals in the northern regions of the country for years. In the latest such violence on Monday, Boko Haram fighters killed about 300 people in Gamborou Ngala, a village on Nigeria's border with Chad, in a spree of destruction that burned shops and houses to the ground and destroyed hundreds of vehicles.
Boko Haram regularly makes a mockery of security in the region, said Kwambura Asabe, head teacher at the Chibok school were the girls were kidnapped.
"All schools in the area had been closed down before because of incessant attacks by Islamic extremists," he said, adding his school was only opened to allow the girls to take exams.
Hailing from the southern end of Nigeria, where internal conflicts between regions are common, Jonathan is viewed as distant and aloof to the north's concerns. In parliament in the Nigerian capital of Abuja, opposition parties represent much of the region.
"Our president is never interested in anything happening in northern Nigeria just because we didn't vote for him," said a relative of a missing girl who asked not to be identified out of fear for her safety. "He is now acting as if he is paying attention after our daughters were abducted. He is doing this because of international pressure."
But the central government's representative in the region, Lawal Bana, said he and other officials have been working hard to punish the terrorists and find the girls, but discovering their whereabouts is proving difficult.
"It's very sad to families, community, our nation and the world that these girls are still under the control of Boko Haram as we speak," Bana said. "I know the government is trying to do what it can to release the girls."
Amina Zainab, a Chibok resident and the mother of two daughters and a son, wasn't interested in excuses, saying the government needs to act soon to end her neighbors' suffering.
"Think about what these mothers are going through," she said. "My heart is shattered and traumatized when imagining what the young girls may be going through at the moment."
The mother of the missing girl said the families are searching themselves because they can't bear sitting around doing nothing.
"My heart is crushed — you can't imagine what I have been through the past four weeks," she said. "I don't know what's happening to her right now or whether she is still alive."