MICHIKA, NIGERIA - The last service at the EYN church in Michika started with prayers and ended with gunfire as Boko Haram fighters stormed the town on a Sunday in September 2014.
Those that could ran to the nearby mountains, joining the millions of people that have fled the Islamist insurgency in Nigeria and neighboring countries.
More than a year-and-a-half after Boko Haram was routed from Michika and other towns in Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa state, people are coming back home to rebuild their lives. But the towns, and the livelihoods, they returned to are much changed, residents say.
“You become jittery,” Habiba Nasiru, a student in the town of Gombi, told VOA. “There are things you can comfortably do before, that you can’t do now.”
Gombi was stormed by the insurgents in November 2014 and became the southernmost settlement in Boko Haram’s territory, which at its height was equivalent in size to Belgium and stretched from Adamawa into nearby Borno and Yobe states.
Gombi, Michika and other areas the militants seized were reclaimed by an offensive that began in late 2014 and accelerated in 2015, involving troops from Nigeria and its neighbors, foreign mercenaries and local vigilante groups.
Much of what these troops took back was rubble.
The militants destroyed churches, torched markets and broke into houses in Michika. Their commanders took up residence in an opulent home, while burying their dead in another man’s backyard.
Fighting snapped bridges in half and left roads strewn with burned out armored vehicles.
All told, the Boko Haram conflict has killed more than 20,000 people and forced 2.7 million to flee in Nigeria and its neighbors Cameroon, Chad and Niger, where the group has also been active.
In northeast Nigeria, $9 billion will be needed to rebuild, according to a Nigerian government report.
“Outside Michika, they have burned all the necessary places that we use them. Houses, schools, and they have killed many peoples,” said Tumba Tumba Kwaha, a teacher at a village school near Michika.
Slowly rising again
Rebuilding has already begun. In Michika, one school the militants raided has been patched up, with only a gash in a classroom roof signaling the violence that occurred there.
But some of what Boko Haram wrought is permanent.
Vigilante group member Husseini Bunja stands with arduous stiffness, the result of a bullet fired by a dying Boko Haram fighter during the battle for Gombi that pierced his arm. The injury keeps him from working, and he spends his days at home.
“I only get assistance in the market and among friends who know I have the problem or when I beg outside my house,” Bunja said.
Michika’s EYN church is now nothing more than a pile of rubble. Boko Haram destroyed it days after taking over. Parishioners have jammed pews, plastic chairs and a pulpit under an open-sided shelter situated in the ruin, creating a makeshift chapel.
But parishioner Hassan Dauda said hundreds of worshippers have not returned.
“Some, their houses has been burned down,” he said. “Some are still afraid of coming back.”