The Wall Street Journal
The crowd of young women fell silent as Grace Dauda limped to the stage, slowed by an old shrapnel wound suffered after she and her classmates were kidnapped by Boko Haram insurgents in 2014.

Ms. Dauda gripped the microphone and began to spell. “A…M…E…R…” she stuttered nervously in English, her third language. “I…C…A…N!”

The room whooped with the cries of ululating young women, who rushed the stage and lifted Ms. Dauda, a spelling bee winner. She climbed into a rescue vehicle last May, one of the last of her classmates to be freed.

“We’re enjoying it,” Ms. Dauda told The Wall Street Journal during a visit with the former captives this week at their new home, the first by a news organization. “We like to learn.” 

A year ago, most of these young women were focused on survival—eating grass to quell their hunger, sleeping on bare ground near snakes and scorpions, sharing whispered Bible passages in defiance of their captors. After their release by ransom in two batches, 103 survivors, the world’s most famous hostages, were cast into freedom as suddenly as they had been taken.

The ransomed women, along with 27 who escaped, are now sequestered on a heavily guarded university campus, enjoying a secure room and board as they undergo an arduous, uncertain recovery from a trauma that stretched over three agonizing years.

The liberation hasn’t freed many of them from insomnia, depression and unwanted memories of captivity in forest camps. At times, they were so thirsty they drank from mud puddles, and so hungry they chewed tree bark.

“When they hug you, you can feel it,” one school official said. “You can feel those three years.”

About half of the 276 kidnapped schoolgirls—whose abduction from their town of Chibok sparked a world-wide social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls—either escaped or were ransomed; 112 remain missing. At least 13 are presumed dead.

Details of the students’ captivity and their efforts to recover come from interviews with the women, their educators and psychologists, and intelligence officials who debriefed them after their release.

As captives, the women survived as a collective. Many now have trouble retrieving a sense of individual identity. A lone student will often say, “We are fine,” when an instructor asks.

The young women are slowly being divided into separate classes, grouped by academic abilities. Some who had been best friends in captivity find their recovery moving at different speeds.

Psychologists who specialize in kidnap victims say they are unsure about the best way to simultaneously treat and educate such a large group of women—ages 18 to 27—after years of collective captivity and abuse.

The spelling bee contests, one healing piece of the curriculum, arrived as something of a surprise. It was the Chibok girls who came up with the idea.

Back to school

Their new home, the American University of Nigeria, is only a few hours by road from the tin-roofed schoolhouse in Chibok where the girls were taken. These days, they share a high-tech campus of air-conditioned classrooms and manicured lawns with the sharply dressed children of Nigeria’s metropolitan elite.

Parents agreed to let their daughters study and live at the university, though families are allowed only one visit per term.

As with all new schools, it was hard to fit in at first. “We couldn’t eat,” said Hauwa Ntakai. “We couldn’t look at people in the eye.”

The women had acclimated to the forest camps where Boko Haram insurgents threatened them at gunpoint to either convert to Islam and marry a fighter or be a slave.

About half chose slavery, which cost them access to food and shelter. Among their gruesome chores were amputating infected limbs and burying the dead, which included classmates. Several died from disease, hunger or the airstrikes that reduced the insurgents’ camps to smoke and flames.

On campus, the survivors have struggled to be just students again. One night, plopped on couches, they watched “Akeelah and the Bee,” a movie about an 11-year-old African-American girl in Los Angeles who finds her confidence after her father's death by winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee. 

The students watched the movie again and again over bowls of popcorn. They went to their teachers with a demand: They wanted to hold their own spelling bees. The teachers agreed.

The young women began memorizing vocabulary lists and testing each others’ lexicographic skills. Their wordplay escalated into late-night spelling battles. “It was unbelievably competitive,” Mr. Braggs said.

Spelling employs a skill many of the women honed while captive: mnemonic memory. Some spent much of their time memorizing lengthy prayers and hymns. Others composed diary entries in their heads—their thoughts, injustices they suffered—they would later log in journals they kept hidden. In secret, they retold the story of Job, the biblical figure who was punished in a test of his faith.

Prisoners have long passed the time memorizing words. Arizona Sen. John McCain took to heart the names of 300 of his fellow prisoners during the Vietnam War. Jews held in the basement of the Terezin concentration camp memorized the lyrics to Verdi’s choral opus “Requiem”—in Latin. Malcolm X copied the dictionary.

“I find it easy to memorize,” said Saratu Ayuba, who won a gold medal in a recent contest by successfully spelling entertainment. “I know the small words. I can build them out in my head.”

Others struggle, though, finding it hard to focus.

“For those of them who didn’t meet their marks, it was a knock to their confidence,” said Somiari Demm, their psychologist. “But there’s quite a few of them who’ve found their voice.”

In late-night study sessions, the women collapse in laughter over misspellings. “She kept spelling dranking instead of drinking,” said Ms. Ntakai, pointing at her friend. “It sounds funny.” They sometimes break into mock karaoke, ditching word lists for a hairbrush held as a microphone.

Teachers and counselors try to keep their minds on their daily activities, as well as their future. Emotionally, Mr. Braggs said, “I can’t allow them to go back to that place. If one of them is traumatized or has an episode, it could spread like wildfire.

On a recent day at the university, the Chibok women crowded around a whiteboard, tackling algebra problems. One group was multiplying fractions: -2/5 times 2/5?

Grace Paul was composing a speech titled, “My First Journey by Air.”

Dudu Nkeki, one of the first to escape, milled about, cracking jokes. “Bad things happen,“ she said, ”before good things can happen.”

Stolen away

The 276 Chibok girls were studying for their final exams on the night of April 14, 2014, when truckloads of fighters arrived at their schoolhouse and then drove them into the woods.

In December, days after Christmas, Boko Haram released a video featuring dozens of Chibok students who remain in forest camps.

“By the grace of Allah, we will never return,” said one young woman, surrounded by burka-clad classmates, some holding babies.

“There are things that happened,” Ms. Demm said, “that all of those young girls are going to take to their graves.” The school-appointed psychologist, who relocated from Richmond, Va., said many are improving but they are only beginning to confront the pain of their ordeal.

“In sessions sometimes we get to a point where they just leave: their bodies are still there but they are just emotionally and mentally not there,” Ms. Demm said. “They just can’t go there. Not yet.”

In October 2016 and May 2017, 103 survivors were swapped for a ransom that people involved said included €3 million, about $3.7 million, delivered in a pair of duffel bags.

Even after they were freed, the forest kept a tight grip. The young women ducked and screamed at the sound of commercial jets flying over the government building where they were first held, fearing they were bringing airstrikes.

They boarded a plane in September to Yola and the university. Flight attendants yelled at them to sit in their ticketed seats and fasten their seat belts. “I thought I was going to die,” Ms. Paul said, recalling the flight.

The protracted recovery for the freed Chibok girls echoes the long war still thundering across four West African nations.

Nigeria’s army has retaken territory and hide-outs from Boko Haram’s self-proclaimed caliphate, but the terrorist group continues to hold thousands of abducted boys and girls. It deployed seven times as many suicide bombs in 2017 than the year prior.

Most of the bombers—like the Chibok girls—were young women.


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