Refugees from Boko Haram re­turn home, ex­cited, fear­ful

Chronicle (Zimbabwe) - - Worldwide -

MAIDUGURI — Ex­cited but fear­ful, refugees from Boko Haram piled into yel­low school buses with their bun­dles of be­long­ings, re­turn­ing after two years to homes that have been torched, wells de­stroyed, live­stock looted and fields that still may not be safe from the Is­lamic in­sur­gents.

On Mon­day, the largest group yet of such refugees, nearly 2 000, was trans­ported to vil­lages and the town of Kon­duga. Though they are just 35 km (22 miles) from Maiduguri, north­east Nige­ria’s big­gest city, they are also on the fringes of the Sam­bisa For­est where the Is­lamic ex­trem­ists still have strongholds.

How this group of re­turnees sur­vives, and whether the mil­i­tary can pro­tect them, could in­flu­ence other refugees whom the gov­ern­ment is keen to re­set­tle. Maiduguri alone is home to about 1 mil­lion of the 2.6 mil­lion peo­ple forced from their homes in Nige­ria and neigh­bour­ing coun­tries dur­ing Boko Haram’s sev­enyear up­ris­ing that has killed some 20 000.

De­spite the threat from in­sur­gents, “food is the most im­por­tant is­sue,” said one re­turnee, Baari Mustapha. “If not, there will be se­ri­ous hunger and star­va­tion.”

Food is al­ready a crit­i­cal is­sue. Chil­dren are dy­ing of star­va­tion in refugee camps like Dalori, where many of the re­turnees had been liv­ing in tat­tered tents and makeshift huts of straw on the out­skirts of Maiduguri.

Dalori res­i­dents were among hun­dreds who protested last week, ac­cus­ing of­fi­cials of steal­ing their food dona­tions. Nige­ria’s gov­ern­ment is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the charges.

The refugees say the camps are mis­er­able, and they hope life will be bet­ter back home. “Life has not been easy in the camp,” said Bintu Ganaye, a 32-year-old mother sur­rounded by her five chil­dren, ages 3 to 13. “Our ma­jor fear is that we don’t know what the fu­ture holds out for us as we re­turn empty-handed.”

Al­most all the re­turnees are chil­dren, women and old men. Most women have no idea of the fate of hus­bands and sons, who may have been killed by Boko Haram or kid­napped to be turned into fight­ers.

The Borno state gov­ern­ment some months ago tried to force refugees to re­turn home, only to meet re­sis­tance from peo­ple who said it wasn’t safe. Smaller groups have vol­un­tar­ily re­turned.

On Mon­day, the refugees waited hours in swel­ter­ing heat for the ar­rival of Borno state Govenor Kashim Shet­tima, who as­sured them that food ra­tions would be shipped to them, along with seeds to cul­ti­vate a to­tal of 50 hectares (124 acres) of land cleared for them.

The vil­lagers said they be­lieve they still could be at­tacked by Boko Haram on their tra­di­tional farm­ing lands, which are lo­cated away from their vil­lages.

Hun­dreds of thou­sands of peas­ant farm­ers have been driven from their lands by Boko Haram.

Kon­duga town was at­tacked many times in the past be­cause it serves as a fi­nal de­fence for Maiduguri, the birth­place of the ex­trem­ist group and head­quar­ters of the mil­i­tary cam­paign to curb its in­sur­gency.

Even in Dalori camp, the refugees were not safe. In Jan­u­ary, Boko Haram sent gun­men and sui­cide bombers who fire­bombed huts there and killed at least 86 peo­ple, in­clud­ing chil­dren.

There has been no ma­jor at­tack on Maiduguri or Kon­duga in the months since the mil­i­tary and forces from neigh­bour­ing coun­tries an­nounced they had forced the mil­i­tants out of most ar­eas ex­cept the ex­treme north­ern ar­eas around the Lake Chad Basin, where Nige­ria’s bor­ders meet Cameroon, Chad and Niger, and the Sam­bisa For­est to the west of Kon­duga. — AFP

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