It was a journey they had waited nearly three long years to take.
Ten weeks after being released by Boko Haram, 21 freed Chibok schoolgirls and a baby returned home this month to celebrate Christmas with their families for the first time since they were snatched by the terror group.
The April 2014 kidnapping of nearly 300 girls from a boarding school in Chibok sparked global outrage a #BringBackOurGirls campaign on social media.
CNN accompanied the 21 girls as they made the journey from the capital Abuja, where they have been undergoing medical and psychological assessments since they were released by Boko Haram nearly two months ago in a deal brokered by an unnamed Swiss contingent and the Nigerian authorities.
On Thursday, CNN’s Isha Sesay boarded a flight with the girls from Abuja to Yola in eastern Nigeria, where the girls would make a six-hour road trip north to Chibok.
The change in the Chibok girls from 10 weeks earlier was remarkable. Their tattered clothes were gone and they were clearly better fed after surviving for two and a half years on meager or non-existent meals.
After their release in October, one of them, Glory Dama, told the assembled media that they once went without food for 40 days in the bush.
“I did not know that a day like this will come, that we will be dancing and giving thanks to God among people,” she said. “For one month and 10 days we stayed without food. I narrowly escaped a bomb blast in the forest.”
They have been taking English classes and playing outdoors, their caretakers told CNN. One girl, Agnes, added that they have been learning how to knit. Several have had surgery to remove shrapnel.
One of the girls, Rebecca Mallam, said they felt “beautiful and grateful.”
The girls, Christians who were forcibly converted to Islam by their captors, prayed together before leaving Abuja Friday morning on the first leg of their journey home.
As they waited to board the flight to Yola they appeared tense. Their colorful clothes and bright smiles did little to mask the pain and anxiety behind their eyes. Some of the girls had confided in their Abuja caretakers that they were worried about how they would be received by the wider community due to the stigma of being held by Boko Haram.