KANO, Nigeria – Escape seemed hopeless. The militants’ convoy of pickup trucks, buses and motorcycles penetrated deep into the northeastern Nigerian forest in the dead of night with its haul: several hundred schoolgirls.
A phalanx of motorcycles puttered on either side, with men wielding AK-47s ready to shoot any girl who tried to jump from a truck and run.
The first thing the Boko Haram insurgents did when they stopped to camp in the forest near a village called Baale was put some of the girls to work cooking looted food. Others were taken at gunpoint to carry water.
“I was one of those chosen to cook,” a 16-year-old said in a phone interview, recalling the kidnapping last month of more than 300 girls at a boarding school in Chibok.
The girl said her mind raced as she stirred the pot of rice over a wood fire. The Boko Haram gunmen had the group surrounded, constantly watching.
“My mind was busy, thinking of a way to escape,” she said. “I and two other girls were close together, speaking softly, and we came up with a plan.”
The girls told the gunmen they needed to relieve themselves. They were allowed to walk into the bush.
“As soon as we were out of sight of the gunmen, we fled and we ran for about two hours,” the girl said.
Eventually, the three stumbled across a group of Fulani herders, who rescued them.
According to police, 53 girls had escaped from the gunmen as of Friday, and 276 remained missing. Officials in Borno state, where Chibok is located, identified the girls who had escaped, saying some had fled on the day of the kidnapping, and others got away later.
Boko Haram, which modeled itself on Afghanistan’s Taliban, bitterly opposes secular education and Western culture. It has carried out dozens of school attacks since 2012, killing scores of students and teachers. It has closed nearly all the schools in Nigeria’s vast northeastern desert region and wants to establish Islamic Shariah law throughout Nigeria, a country of 170 million divided between the predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south.
Despite the history of terror at schools, hundreds of girls had gathered in Chibok for a few days in April to take exams. They woke the night of April 14, terrified, when gunfire broke out in the distance. The crackling moved closer, and two hours later, dozens of men in camouflage drove into the school compound in pickup trucks and buses and on motorcycles.
Many girls thought they’d been saved.
“We thought they were soldiers,” a 17-year-old said in a phone interview. “They told us to get out of our hostels, saying that they had been sent to take us to safety because Boko Haram was attacking the town.”
Outside, the girls watched, puzzled, as the gunmen broke into a school kitchen, grabbing pots and utensils.
“Suddenly they began to chant ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) as they set the school buildings on fire,” the girl said. “That was when we realized we were in the hands of Boko Haram. It was too late to contemplate escape, because we could see from the expression on their faces that they were ready to shoot any of us who tried to flee.
“They forced us into trucks, buses and cars, some of which were loaded with foodstuffs and petrol. They took us in a convoy into the bush,” she said.
With gunmen on motorcycles flanking the convoy, it was impossible to jump off the truck and flee, she said.
The journey didn’t go smoothly. One of the trucks broke down. The gunmen ordered girls to cram into another truck, burned the disabled vehicle and continued on. Next, one of the buses broke down.
“At that moment, some of us jumped out of the vehicles and ran into the bush,” the 17 year-old said.
Boko Haram’s mass abduction of the girls – more than in any of its other many attacks during the last decade, some of which have seen hundreds of people die – sparked international disgust. Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau galvanized the disdain with a chilling boast: “I abducted your girls. I will sell them in the market, by God.”
Meanwhile, the same Islamic extremists blew up a bridge, killed an unknown number of people and abducted the wife and two children of a retired police officer in northeast Nigeria, residents said Saturday amid mounting condemnation by Muslims of the Boko Haram network.
News of Friday night’s attack came as international efforts to help rescue the missing girls got under way.
A team of French experts arrived Saturday in Nigeria, said an official in President Francois Hollande’s office in Paris. He said they are expert in collecting intelligence from technical and human sources and in image analysis.
British security experts arrived Friday to join Nigerian and American forces, and Britain said its aim is not only to help in the crisis over the girls but to defeat the homegrown Boko Haram terrorist network.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.