In Nigeria, hundreds of traditional hunters have gathered, eager to use their skills and what they believe to be supernatural powers to help find the nearly 300 schoolgirls abducted by Islamic extremists.
The hunters — armed with homemade guns, spears and other weapons — have been waiting in Maiduguri for two weeks to receive support from the military so that they can move forward in their efforts.
Michelle Faul, the Nigeria bureau chief for the Associated Press, joins Here & Now’s Robin Young from Nigeria to discuss the details of this latest attempt to bring back the missing girls.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Hundreds of traditional hunters are lining up in the Nigerian countryside to search for the nearly 300 missing schoolgirls kidnapped last month by Boko Haram. They're armed with swords, homemade guns, bows and poisoned spears. We'll post an AP photo at HereAndNow.org, as Associated Press Nigerian bureau chief Michelle Faul joins us by Skype.
Michele, your colleague visited these hunters. They gave demonstrations?
MICHELLE FAUL: Well, it's amazing. These are traditional hunters. I mean normally they would be going into the forest, where it's believed the girls are being held, to hunt things like antelope and monkeys. In this case they're saying that their stalking and tracking skills are enhanced by what they believe to be supernatural powers. And that these powers can make it that much easier for them to find the girls.
And my colleague, Haruno Umaro(ph), he described the scene to me. The younger hunters gave him this dazzling display of dexterity with swords and daggers, and like slashing themselves but, of course, no blood is drawn. And they were claiming that this was because of their spiritual powers, and not because of any sleight-of-hand.
YOUNG: Oh, quite something. Of course, it's also quite a startling image from the one that we have of other ways the girls are being searched for - unmanned drones, for instance. This is at the complete other end of the spectrum.
FAUL: Exactly, I mean we've got U.S. aircraft and drones carrying cameras up in the air above Nigeria. They've been there for a week now, also joining in the search for the girls. But to go back to the hunters, I mean they said: We're not saying we're better than the soldiers but we know the bush better than the soldiers. You know, and suggesting that that local knowledge, you know, should be used in the search.
YOUNG: Well, and one would think that that makes a lot of sense. But what's been the response of the Nigerian government?
FAUL: Well, we haven't been able to get a response from the government or, more particularly, the military, who we were saying, you know, will you be taking advantage. There are actually 500 of them who've gathered in Maiduguri. And they're aged everything from like 18-year-olds whose grandfathers were hunters and fathers were hunters, to grandfathers in their 80s.
Now, on the ground in Chibok, we had the chance today to speak on the phone with family on the ground. And they're still saying that from Chibok, they have not seen a single soldier to go into the Sambisa Forest. They say that they, you know, get messages regularly from villagers who have hamlets and live in the forest.
Now, Nigeria's military insists that it is diligently searching and that the aerial surveillance goes beyond the forest and across, you know, right up to Nigeria's borders with Cameroon, with Chad, where we've heard that possibly some of these girls have been taken, you know, cross borders into other countries.
YOUNG: And, Michelle Faul, again, Nigerian bureau chief for the Associated Press, did the hunters express any fear of what they're trying to do? Boko Haram, of course, a murderous organization. It's interesting - there are some reports today that there are Nigerians who were concerned that all this attention on them is sort of playing into their hands. But what did these hunters say about going out with bows and arrows and their mystical powers, to potentially confront them?
FAUL: Well, they say that Boko Haram can't harm them. They have these amulets that I'm told have things like animal teeth and herbs, other substances that they say protect them against bullets and that, you know, they feel fearless and they would not have a problem confronting the bullets of Boko Haram.
And yes, of course, there is this fear. Certainly in the last video with the Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, there was no fear that you could see on his face. You know, instead he seemed to be leering and glorying in the attention that they have drawn with this mass abduction.
YOUNG: Well, what more do we know about how other organizations are approaching Boko Haram? The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Western powers are pressing the U.N. to designate the group a terrorist organization. That would subject the group members to sanctions, asset freezes, travel bans. It's not clear how much they are traveling anyway. But what's the sense of other movement now that this group has drawn such attention, other movement to curtail them?
FAUL: Well, this was discussed in a conference at the weekend in Paris, and where it was agreed that what's really, really needed is regional cooperation, you know, saying that they are banned and they can't cross borders, well, they cross borders at will. They cross from Nigeria, we know, into Chad, into Cameroon, into Niger. They have camps in those countries. They train in those countries. There are fighters from those countries that have been arrested fighting with Boko Haram, within Nigeria.
So, you know, what's seen now as the biggest fear is that the spread of Boko Haram, of these extremists into neighboring countries and the, you know, really urgent need to try and curtail that.
YOUNG: So well, meanwhile this group of hunters, 500 strong, hopes to do their own part. Your sense, this seems to reflect this anger that we've just been feeling from people in this country, holding up their hashtag, you know, bring home our girls, demonstrating. It sounds as if these men just decided to take matters into their own hands.
FAUL: Well, I think it is part of the general anger and outrage that how can this be after more than a month, that you can have nearly 300 girls who are still missing, and, you know, the reports that nobody is seeing anything on the ground that would indicate this hot pursuit and this combing of the forest that the military claims they're doing and, you know, that this generally reflects the failure of the government and the failure of Nigeria's military in the fight against Boko Haram, and it's shown up in particular, you know, in the search for the girls.
YOUNG: That's Associated Press Nigerian bureau chief Michelle Faul. Again we'll have their reporting and pictures at hereandnow.org, just terrific. Michelle, thank you so much.
FAUL: Thank you, bye.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
YOUNG: There goes Skype. We have time for a quick clarification. Yesterday we told you that animal rights groups are paying millions to Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus to settle a lawsuit in which the groups claimed abuse of elephants. A judge ruled that suit frivolous. Now, we said the Humane Society filed the initial lawsuit. They did not. They are part of the payout because they merged with the Fund for Animals, which did file with other groups. The story is at hereandnow.org. And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.