VIENNA, Va.—Four years ago, on a truck barreling toward the forest hideout of Boko Haram, teenager Kauna Bitrus made a desperate move to avoid the fate of the more than 200 other schoolgirls abducted from Chibok, Nigeria, that day.
When Kauna landed, months later, in the pine-shaded town of Grundy, Va., she was among the lucky few Chibok students awarded full scholarships and sanctuary at Christian academies in rural America.
But here too, Ms. Bitrus and six of her classmates found themselves hostage to forces they couldn’t control. Thrust into the media spotlight by a prominent Nigerian human-rights lawyer, they say they were forced to relive their trauma to raise money and further political agendas in Washington.
Eventually, they passed word in secret to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security with an urgent plea: We are Chibok students, held captive again. Get us out of here.
By now, the story of the schoolgirls abducted by the Islamist insurgency in Northern Nigeria on April 14, 2014, has passed into the realm of legend. Millions of people, Michelle Obama and Pope Francis among them, joined the #BringBackOurGirls cause. There are still 112 missing.
Meanwhile, a dozen young Nigerians found themselves in small-town America, shadowed by the celebrity of a night they wanted only to forget.
The experience of the Chibok students who made it to the U.S., never fully reported, featured a former White House adviser, evangelical lobby groups and a cowboy hat-wearing congresswoman. Along the way, say many of those involved, the truth of what really happened became embellished as they fell into the custody of a local sponsor, Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian human-rights lawyer and authority on what he termed a “Christian genocide” in his home country. The young women say he told them they could be shipped back there–and harmed—if they didn’t do what he said.
“There were too many lies,” says Ms. Bitrus, who shuttled through schools in Virginia, Oregon and the Bronx before settling in a snow-covered New England town. “It’s like we were prisoners again.”
The Wall Street Journal heard from several of the Chibok students in America, as well as their teachers, counselors, and families, along with officials from the DHS and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Journal reviewed two reports written by the American schools they attended, as well as two undisclosed Nigerian governmental investigations that allege Mr. Ogebe and his Nigerian associates fraudulently exploited the ex-hostages for tens of thousands of dollars.
“Mr. Ogebe generated a lot of money through these activities and never spent a dime to care for their well-being,” said one of two undisclosed Nigerian government reports accusing him of fraud, citing interviews with the young women and their caretakers. “The girls…accused him of using them as money minting machines.”
Mr. Ogebe denies the accusations against him and says the young Nigerians have been turned against him by other actors eager to exploit them, ranging from Nigeria’s government, biographers looking to publish their story and a former adviser to George H. W. Bush who took two of them to meet President Donald Trump. He says the Chibok saga ultimately left him poorer.
“This was a dirty operation and they did a lot of havoc and subterfuge,” he said in an interview. “It’s heartbreaking to a philanthropist and humanitarian when you see how heartless people can be.”
Mr. Ogebe hasn’t been charged with any crime. The FBI in 2016 probed allegations he committed financial fraud, but didn’t pursue charges. Investigators found Mr. Ogebe had likely been keeping or misappropriating money he raised in the name of the Chibok students, but that he also spent some fraction of that money housing and transporting them, according to people familiar with the inquiry. That made it difficult to prosecute the case, the people said.
Mr. Ogebe’s central counter-accusation—that some people in the U.S. are looking to milk the Chibok students for their story—rings true with the young women themselves who are looking for a community that will regard them as individuals, not symbols of global religious strife.
Over and over again, they say they have been asked by Mr. Ogebe and others to recount an escape most wished to put behind them—a painful telling many feel does little to free their classmates and instead provides emotional release to the tearful audiences who put donations on the table to hear them.
This month, four began attending Pennsylvania’s Dickinson College. For some, it is their fifth school in four years.
“We hate when they call us Chibok girls,” says Ms. Bitrus, who has chosen to stay in her remote New England hamlet. “I am Kauna.”
The First Escape
Weeks after their breakaway from Boko Haram in 2014, dozens of students from the Chibok Secondary School began a scholarship at an elite college in northeast Nigeria, the American University of Nigeria, training grounds for some of her country’s most privileged. The campus’ smart buildings and manicured lawns contrasted life in Chibok, where their red tin-roofed schoolhouse had been torched.