MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Among the lucky ones, there are pensive smiles but not much laughter.
When the militants came to their school, the men shouted “Allahu akbar!” and announced, “We are Boko Haram,” firing their rifles and threatening casually to kill the teenage girls studying there.
“They said: ‘If you want to die, sit down here. We will kill you. If you don’t want to die, you will enter the trucks,’ ” remembered Kuma Ishaku, a soft-spoken 18-year-old in a bright white blouse with silver sparkles. Frightened and crying, the girls boarded the trucks.
But then Ms. Ishaku fled — one of 53 girls from the Chibok Government Girls Secondary School who escaped their captors.
Click on post title to read more…
More than 260 schoolgirls are still missing, and on Wednesday, President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria rejected Boko Haram’s demand that he free the group’s imprisoned members around the country in exchange for the girls, according to a British minister who met with him.
“There will be no negotiation with Boko Haram that involves a swap of abducted schoolgirls for prisoners,” Mark Simmonds, Britain’s top official for Africa, told reporters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.
Video released by Boko Haram on Monday is the first glimpse of the missing schoolgirls since they were abducted on April 14.
The government has been at war with the radical Islamist group Boko Haram for years, but the accounts of the girls who escaped show how easily the group was able to overrun a state institution in a region already under emergency rule.
Though Nigeria has mounted an aggressive campaign against Boko Haram, often killing civilians in the process, it has been unable to stop the group from attacking schools, towns and even the capital. Just on Wednesday, Boko Haram fighters killed four Nigerian soldiers in an ambush near the girls’ school, according to news reports.
The girls’ accounts are emblematic of the ruthlessness of Boko Haram, adding to the worries over the fate of those who remain in captivity if the president has ruled out a deal to free them.
Some of the schoolgirls who escaped jumped from the trucks taking them through the bush, trying to persuade reluctant classmates to follow them. Others slipped away from the Islamists’ camp while their captors were distracted. The teenage girls wandered directionless in the thick semidesert scrub before kind strangers took them in and back to their village.
They fled after quickly calculating that risking death was better than the grim existence their captors were undoubtedly planning for them. All of them knew about Boko Haram. Their village, Chibok, 80 miles from this state capital, at the end of a dirt track, had been attacked before, like virtually every other village around. The girls said they wanted no part of it.
“Yes, yes, I ran into the bush,” said Joy Bishara, a tall 18-year-old in a brown T-shirt with “Ice Box” on the front. She jumped from one of the trucks as it slowed down. “I don’t know where I am going,” Ms. Bishara said, recalling her hasty reasoning that night. “I think they will kill me. They were telling us, ‘We will kill you.’ ”
Six of the girls who escaped came up to Maiduguri this week to watch the Boko Haram video showing dozens of their captured schoolmates. The governor here in the heart of the Boko Haram insurgency had asked for the girls’ help in naming the teenagers in the video. Well over 70 of the girls on screen have been identified, the governor says, but for the ones who escaped, seeing their friends shrouded in the austere black and gray head scarves and robes the militants imposed was deeply unsettling.
“When we saw them in the movie, we started crying,” said Godiya Simon, 17, who escaped from the Boko Haram camp.
Outside a villa here on the sandy grounds of the worn but cheerful Borno State Hotel, three of the girls quietly told their stories of escape, barely aware that a global spotlight had been fixed on them. The girls, dressed in vivid shades of green, blue, red and orange — a sharp contrast to the Islamists’ black — brushed off suggestions of exceptional courage.
“We woke up and we saw people in military uniforms,” said Ms. Ishaku, who, like many of the students, had come in from an outlying area and was sleeping at the school that night, April 14, when she heard the sound of gunfire.
“We thought they were army men,” she said. “They were telling us: ‘Come, come. We are army.’ ”
The girls were told to gather in one spot, but Ms. Ishaku knew something was wrong when the men began barking: “Where do you keep your food? Where is your staff room?”
They seemed especially interested in a device the school kept for making mud bricks. “ ‘Where is the engine for preparing bricks? If you don’t tell us, we will kill you,’ ” Ms. Bishara recalled the men saying. The men spoke Kanuri, the language of the dominant ethnic group of the Muslims of Maiduguri. Most of the Chibok residents are Christians of a small minority group who speak Kibaku, another of Nigeria’s myriad languages.
Some background on the Islamist group that has been trying to topple Nigeria’s government for years.
“They told us: ‘We are Boko Haram. We will burn your school. You shall not do school again,’ ” Ms. Bishara said. “ ‘You shall do Islamic school.’ And they were shouting, ‘Allahu akbar!’ ” — “God is great!”
There was coaxing among the threats. “They were saying, ‘Don’t worry; we will not touch you,’ ” Ms. Simon said, adding that the men told them, “ ‘We will take you to our masters.’ ”
But the men were not wasting time on indoctrination on this night. That would come later, as evidenced by the video released this week, in which the girls who did not escape were seen mechanically chanting verses from the Quran.
The trucks were waiting, Ms. Ishaku recalled: “They said: ‘Now you will know who we are. We will take you to our place.’ We were frightened.”
Crying, the girls boarded the trucks. Crammed in with whatever provisions the Islamists had been able to seize from the now burned-down school, many of the girls gave themselves over to tears and despair. But Ms. Ishaku noticed a window of opportunity as the truck made its way through the dense scrubby bush, called the Sambisa Forest, that abuts Chibok.
The pickup full of armed men that was bringing up the rear, guarding the convoy, was straggling behind.
“So I said, ‘Let’s jump,’ ” Ms. Ishaku recalled. “Out of fear, some refused. They said, ‘They will shoot us.’ I said, ‘I prefer to die.’ ”
Ms. Ishaku jumped from the moving truck and ran through the underbrush, suffering scrapes and bruises along the way, but she eventually reached safety.
Ms. Bishara, who also jumped with a few others, said: “All of us were running through the bush. We are running, and we don’t know where we are going.”
Those who stayed endured a bumpy, fearful 12-hour journey on the crammed trucks. When they reached the Boko Haram camp in the forest around noon on April 15, Ms. Simon was among those ordered to cook for the men.
Initially at least, “they were not rough with us,” she said. But when she pleaded with them to allow her to go into the bush to relieve herself, they refused, three times.
Finally, while the men were busy eating, she and three others made a run for it. They kept running until they reached the house of a herdsman of the Fulani ethnic group.
“They gave us food,” Ms. Simon said. “They asked us to stay with them.”
The next day, the village head was informed, and the four girls were driven back to Chibok.
There was no jubilation in these stories of lucky flight. No resolution for the missing girls is in sight, though at least four other nations — the United States, Britain, France and Israel — have offered to help the Nigerian government find them.