Precious and Hope ran for their lives through the thick brush of the Nigerian forest. They could feel their hearts pounding, their bare feet scraped from the rocks and their legs throbbing from the thorns that penetrated their skin as they crawled low through the tangle to avoid detection.
They were running from the armed Islamist fighters who had seized them and approximately 300 other schoolgirls from what they had believed was the safety of their boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria, in one of the most brazen mass-kidnappings in history.
Only the night before, the two 15-year-olds had been sleeping peacefully. It was mid-April, and many of the girls had chosen to try to stay cool by sleeping underneath the night sky in only their shirts or undergarments, while others left the windows of their dormitories wide open to stave off the humidity. What they didn't expect shortly after they closed their eyes was that their world would soon be turned upside-down.
This is the story of the night that Precious and Hope were taken by Boko Haram and their against-all-odds escape the next day, while so many of their classmates remain missing.
This file photo taken from video by Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorist network on Monday, May 12, 2014, shows some of the missing girls abducted on April 14 from the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. (AP Photo/File)
Precious and Hope, whose names have been changed to protect their identities, told their story through a translator to social worker Erica Greve, the founder and CEO of Unlikely Heroes, a nonprofit rescue for child victims of sex slavery. The girls and their mothers gave permission for Greve to share their stories with TheBlaze.
Greve asked the girls during their separate counseling sessions in Lagos, Nigeria, what they would tell the other victims who are still being held by Boko Haram.
“If these girls are given the opportunity to get out of that place, we want them to run,” said Precious, who, like the majority of her classmates, is Christian. "Hold onto God first and foremost, give yourself to God, and be thankful to God for all the people who will help you along the way."
Precious and Hope are two girls who managed to escape their Boko Haram captors after the mass-kidnapping of Nigerian schoolgirls in April. (Photo courtesy of Unlikely Heroes)
For the past few weeks, Greve has been working in Lagos with Precious, Hope and one other girl who managed to escape. She has held counseling sessions with 20 of the mothers of kidnapped girls. The mothers traveled nearly 10 hours through dangerous, militant-controlled territory to get on a plane to meet Greve and to talk to the media about their children. In the village of Chibok, exactly 181 local girls were abducted, according to the official count. Local Nigerian law enforcement and church officials believe some of the other missing girls come from other villages in the surrounding areas, but the numbers are not definitive, Greve said.
Only four escaped girls have been officially accounted for; reports that about 56 girls managed to escape don't seem plausible, the mothers who spoke to Greve told her.
Greve came to Nigeria at the request of clergy member Oladimeji Thompson, founder of the Omoluabi Network, a nonprofit group that's working to bring back the schoolgirls. Thompson called Greve "instrumental in providing aid and comfort to the victims of the abductions in Chibok, and to the families of the kidnapped girls."
On the night of the abduction, Precious and Hope, like the rest of the girls, were asleep in their quarters at the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibook, a Christian stronghold.
Precious told Greve it was roughly 2 a.m. when one of the girls near her shook her awake after hearing the sound of men in the distance. She whispered, "Get up, Boko Haram people are coming."
Precious said she could hear the gunshots in the distance and scrambled to get dressed.
At first, the fighters pretended to be part of the local army, driving in similar vehicles and wearing clothing resembling military garb. Precious and the other girls believed they were there to protect them from the militants that were hiding in the tall brush.
But then, the men started pulling some of the girls out of bed, giving them no time to get dressed. Others grabbed what they could, mainly Bibles and clothing.
The men rounded up the hundreds of girls outside.
“Didn’t we tell you, you weren’t supposed to go to school,” one of them yelled, Precious recalled. "We came to make you obey what we said."
That's when the girls realized that it was not the Nigerian army but Boko Haram, whose name translates to "Western education is sin."
They told the girls that they were "forbidden from a Christian education," Precious told Greve.
Armed with automatic weapons, the militants grabbed several girls and demanded they tell them where the school's food storehouse was located. The men said they were taking the food to feed the girls later, Precious and Hope said.
"First they stole everything out of the storehouse and then they set fire to everything at the school," Precious said.
Then they wanted to know where the boys' dormitory was located: "Where are the boys?"
The fighters didn't believe the girls when they told them "the boys didn't spend the night at the school," Hope said. The male students all went home after their lessons.
"We will keep the girls alive but we are going to kill the boys," the men said, Precious recalled. They tried to persuade them, offering, "show us where the boys are and we’ll let you go. We think you are lying."
In this photo taken from video by Nigeria's Boko Haram terrorist network, Monday May 12, 2014 shows their leader Abubakar Shekau speaking to the camera. (AP Photo)
The militants had already set the biology and chemistry lab on fire. Precious and some of the other girls were told to sit so close to the flames that they could feel their skin burn.
"Both of the girls were very traumatized by the burning because they thought they were going to be on fire," Greve told TheBlaze, breaking away from her notes. "I just let the girls talk and I didn't ask too many questions. It was so difficult for them — there were moments where the girls could barely speak."
Then the militants began to discharge their weapons into the night sky. The girls were forced to lay on the rocky ground until the men were ready to move them away from the burning school.
Their cars and trucks were "three or four kilometers away and many of the girls only had underwear on and no shoes," Precious said, recalling the painful walk to the vehicles.
When the men had gathered the girls at the front of the school compound, one of them said, "We will release you but you have to get married. No more schooling," Hope said.
Some of the men fought and shouted amongst themselves. One said, "We have to call our master before we let them go. Keep them."
The Boko Haram militants had parked three large trucks and several smaller cars at the compound gate. Before loading the girls in, the men confiscated all of the Bibles and any clothing the girls had managed to grab.
"The moon was so high and the fire was so bright there was no place we could hide or run," Hope said.
The girls were told to get into the trucks, but it was too high for some and they couldn't reach. Some of the men pulled the small cars alongside and then brought the rice bags they had stolen from the school to be used as a step to climb up.
When there was no room left in the trucks. Precious was standing alongside a small vehicle.
There were three girls, however, the militants didn't have room for. One of the men shouted, "Are you Christian or Muslim?"
One of the girls was a Muslim, so she was allowed to run home, Precious said.
One of the Christian girls was pushed to the ground and a militant placed the muzzle of his weapon against her head.
“Renounce your faith or we kill you,” he said.
"It’s better to die than to renounce Christ," the girl replied, Precious said.
He yelled it again, Precious said, pushing the girl farther into the hard earth. Then he let her up.
"He said, 'Run home or we will kill you.' They let the three girls go and they went running home," Precious told Greve.
Precious didn't know why they let those girls go. It didn't matter why.
She was then shoved into the trunk of the vehicle.
The men stopped on the long, hot drive to give the girls some fruit. Most of the girls refused to eat; Precious was forced back in the trunk. They would eventually find themselves in the Sambisa Forest, where Boko Haram is known to have hideouts and where it controls most of the surrounding villages.
When the captors stopped at the camp in the forest where the girls were held the first night, Hope remembers one of the commanders saying, "From today, we change your religion to Muslim, from today we'll treat you like a Muslim. Our objective is that we kill all the non-Muslim men and then we'll marry you. This is our plan. This is why we are doing this."
Erica Greve, the founder of Unlikely Heroes, is seen in Lagos, Nigeria, where she has been working with three Nigerian schoolgirls who escaped Boko Haram as well as with mothers whose children were kidnapped. The faces of Precious, Hope and a third girl who is not speaking publicly have been blurred to protect their identities. (Photo courtesy of Unlikely Heroes)
Hope and Precious didn't sleep that night. The next morning, both of the girls asked for some privacy to relieve themselves. They were taken to an area just outside the camp where an armed guard was watching them. Hope squatted down and waited nearly five minutes for the armed guard to get distracted. Then, she made a break for it.
She ran through the sharp brush in the forest. She stopped feeling the pain of the thorns that were sticking in her feet or the sides of her exhausted legs. She was running for her life.
Precious did the same, running through an unknown maze of forest, hoping to find sanctuary along the way. She remembers running past several piles of automatic weapons and having to crawl low in the brush so as not to be seen by the armed men.
"Even if it is death, it is better for us to die on our own than in the hands of these people," Hope told Greve.
Precious was exhausted from the run. She stopped and told Hope, "If I die here, I’m fine. I’m too hungry." But Hope urged her to keep running, Precious said.
The girls, who were still in their school uniforms, had to run around the outskirts of the villages surrounding the Boko Haram camp. They may have been running for nearly 12 hours before finding a couple in a village far from Boko Haram territory who aided them.
Women in the village boiled water to help clean and remove the thorns from Hope's legs and feet. There were so many thorns that the women cried along with her when they saw the pain she was enduring.
A man and a woman from the village took them in and gave them a change of clothes. After sleeping less than five hours, the girls were woken up at 3 a.m. and told they had to leave the home.
The couple warned them that members of Boko Haram would be looking for them. They said, "if you see a motorbike hide behind a tree," Hope recalled. "But people on foot are fine."
The man and woman gave them some money for their journey. The man created a distraction so the girls could flee the area without being seen.
It would be hours before the girls would encounter Nigerian soldiers in the area of Danbua, Nigeria, on their way back home to Chibok.
The soldiers did not take them home, but to a barracks in the city, where they were watched by a female soldier for several days. They were then moved to the local governor's house were they would spend several more days before they were allowed to return to their families.
Until Greve met with the girls in Lagos, they had not seen a doctor or received any form of medical treatment since their abduction.
“The reality is until the rest of the girls are returned from captivity the pain, the grief and the trauma from this tragedy will not heal and neither will the nation of Nigeria," Greve said. "Every second minute and hour that they are in captivity matters. The girls and the mothers will need long-term rehabilitation and restoration. We want the girls to be provided the care services they need and to be reintegrated into their communities so they can start living their lives again.”
Follow Sara A. Carter (@SaraCarterDC) on Twitter