CHIBOK, NIGERIA —
A group of 21 Chibok schoolgirls freed by Boko Haram militants in October after two-and-a-half years in captivity in northeastern Nigeria were celebrating a "miracle" on Friday as the girls prepared to return to their families for Christmas.
The girls were released after Switzerland and the International Red Cross brokered a deal with the militant fighters and have been held in a secret location in the capital Abuja for assessment and debriefing by the Nigerian government.
But the freed girls are being taken back to Chibok in Borno state to spend Christmas and New Year with their families, going home for the first time since being seized from their school, several of their relatives told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The kidnapping of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok in April 2014 sparked global outrage and prompted global figures, including U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and a list of celebrities, to support a campaign #BringBackOurGirls.
One of the girls, Asabe Goni, described her release as a "miracle" and, in the first interview by one of the 21 girls to international media, said she was happy to be going home.
"I had given up hope of ever going home," Goni, 22, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the city of Yola where the 21 girls stayed overnight before setting off to Chibok with two other freed girls and state officials on Friday.
Dancing and singing in her home in Chibok, Goni's grandmother Ngobiko Mutar could not contain her joy as the family prepared for her arrival.
"I didn't think I would ever see her again," Mutar said, while Goni's young relatives baked a cake to welcome her home.
The girls were expected to return to Abuja in the New Year to continue a "restoration process", according to government sources.
They will be joined in Chibok by two other girls abducted from the school in April 2014 who were rescued earlier this year. This includes Amina Ali, the first of the missing girls to be found, who was located in a forest with a baby and a man claiming to be her husband in May.
Her discovery put the disappearance of the girls back into world headlines and President Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to ensure the release of the remaining girls in captivity.
Nigerian authorities are involved in negotiations aimed at securing the release of more of the girls, the president's spokesman said on Thursday on comments posted on Twitter.
Goni said the Chibok girls who were not released wept when the group of 21 was freed, but they were consoled by Boko Haram militants and told that they would go home one day.
Boko Haram has killed more than 15,000 people, displaced over two million and kidnapped hundreds of men, women and children during a seven-year insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state.
Nigeria's army has driven the militants back to their base in Sambisa forest, Boko Haram's vast northeastern woodland stronghold, in recent months but they still stage suicide bombings, often using young girls to carry out the attacks.