KANO, Nigeria — Escape seemed hopeless. The militants' convoy of pickups, 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 each 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 with the Los Angeles Times, 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 sharia law throughout Nigeria, a country of 170 million divided between the predominantly Muslim north and mainly Christian south.
Despite the atmosphere 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 pickups 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."
"They forced us into trucks, buses and cars," she said.
With gunmen on motorcycles flanking the convoy, it was impossible to jump off the truck and flee, she said.
Boko Haram's mass abduction of the girls — more than in any of its other many attacks during the past 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."
Human rights groups have accused Nigeria's military of a scattershot response to Boko Haram's attacks, often killing civilians.
Enoch Mark, whose daughter and two nieces were taken by the gunmen, said in a phone interview that the people of Chibok waited three days for the military to help.
"Three days after the kidnapping, when we realized nothing was being done to rescue our daughters, we parents mobilized hundreds of residents from Chibok and neighboring villages, including vigilantes, and went after the kidnappers in the forest, on motorcycles," Mark said.
The villagers collected money for gasoline and armed themselves with sticks, knives, machetes and hunting guns. The group traveled 60 miles to Baale. Residents there told them the Boko Haram group had passed through the village with the girls and they were camped near a creek nearby.
"The villagers begged us not to proceed, saying we'd be killed because our sticks and hunting guns were no match for the heavy weapons of the Boko Haram gunmen. They warned us we would all be killed if we dared to confront the gunmen. They said we'd put the lives of our daughters in danger," Mark said.
It was growing dark. The men, frustrated and afraid, turned back, hoping to return later with army support.
"We had to return because there was nothing we could do," said another father, Yakubu Maina, in a phone interview.
The next day, the group approached a military barracks in Bama, 42 miles southeast of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state. The military commander told them to put their report in writing, but nothing was done.
"Had the military acted promptly on that information, our daughters would have been saved," said Pogu Bitrus, leader of the Chibok Elders Forum.
Nearly three weeks passed before President Goodluck Jonathan spoke publicly about the case, promising to recover the girls but acknowledging that authorities had no idea where they were.