The New York Times met and photographed dozens of the students abducted by Boko Haram. Now at a university, they say they are the lucky ones. But their celebrity has a price.
YOLA, NIGERIA — The list had more than 200 names.
Martha James. Grace Paul. Rebecca Joseph. Mary Ali. Ruth Kolo. And so many others.
It took Nigerian officials agonizing weeks to publish the names of all the students Boko Haram kidnapped from a boarding school in the village of Chibok four years ago, on the night of April 14. Once they did, the numbers were staggering.
The list quickly circulated among the grieving parents searching for their daughters, some setting out on motorbikes to confront the Islamist militants who had stormed the school, loaded the girls into trucks and hauled them away at gunpoint.
Soldiers used the list, too, as they combed the countryside for the missing students, marching through the forest, dispatching jets and enlisting the help of foreign militaries.
Negotiators checked the names as they bartered with militants for the girls’ release. And the list became an inspiration for protesters hundreds of miles away in the capital, who kept marching for the girls’ return, day after day.
“As I began to read each name, my resolve strengthened,” said Oby Ezekwesili, a former education minister who led protests. “They were not just statistics. These were real human beings.”
Far away in America, France, South Korea and elsewhere, public figures and celebrities joined the cause.
Bring back our girls, they all demanded.
For years, the teenagers remained missing, changing from girls into women, lost to a band of extremists known for beating, raping and enslaving its captives.
And then, many of their names were joyfully crossed off the list.
“I’m ‘back,’ as they say,” said Hauwa Ntakai, one of the Chibok students.
Nearly four years after they were abducted and dragged off to a forest hide-out, more than 100 of the students from Chibok now live on a pristine university campus four hours from their homes here in northeastern Nigeria, their days filled with math and English classes, karaoke and selfies, and movie nights with popcorn.
The government negotiated for the release of many of the Chibok students, who were set free in groups over the last year and a half. A few others were found roaming the countryside, having escaped their captors.
But more than 100 of their former classmates are still missing, held by Boko Haram. About a dozen are thought to be dead.
“I’m happy,” said Ms. Ntakai, who was No. 169 on the list. Now, she is a 20-year-old student who rises at dawn for Saturday yoga class and argues about the benefits and dangers of social media during debate night at the university.
“But I’m thinking about my sisters who are still in the back,” in Boko Haram’s clutches, she said.