MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA - As Boko Haram militants overran his village in the northeastern Borno State, John Ali sought safety. What he found instead was limbo.
Nearly two years later, home for Ali is a sweltering tin shack among other displaced people who fled the hills around the town of Gwoza for the capital, Maiduguri.
Out of money and unable to find work, he stays in the camp day after day, eating twice-daily servings of rice and beans provided by relief agencies and waiting for word that his village, Chinene, is safe to return to.
Boko Haram: living among us
“Up to date, these Boko Haram men are still on population,” Ali told VOA. “They are even camped out in our village. So there is no way for us to go back. But we are willing to go back.”
After fighting the group for nearly seven years, Nigeria’s military has made tentative progress against Boko Haram, sparking discussions among government officials about whether the 2.1 million Nigerians who fled the fighting can soon go back home.
Spokesman for the National Emergency Management Agency Sani Datti says the government wants to return displaced people this year, and has a plan to do so. But with Boko Haram still prowling the countryside and many towns and villages razed, it looks unlikely that Nigeria’s displaced persons crisis will end anytime soon.
“Before returning them back to their community, you know there is some basic infrastructure that has been destroyed by the Boko Harams,” Datti said. “Definitely, we are waiting for clearance from the military.”
Nigeria’s northeast once took pride in its reputation for natural beauty and tranquility, but Boko Haram’s emergence in Borno State has upended life for millions of people across the country’s northeast.
VOA obtained a report from the Borno government that says Nigeria’s second-largest state lost nearly a million homes and more than 5,000 classrooms to the fighting. It will take billions of dollars to undo the damage, a state official told VOA on condition of anonymity.
Returning home soon, unlikely
It used to be worse: In early 2015, the militants were regularly overrunning the military, threatening to take Maiduguri and sending suicide bombers to cities across the country’s northern half, including the capital, Abuja. All told, Boko Haram is believed to have held territory equivalent to the size of Belgium, before being pushed out by troops from Nigeria, its neighbors, and foreign mercenaries.
In the months since, the group has hit back with suicide bombing and shooting attacks across the north, but the military insists the insurgency is in retreat. They say they’ve secured Maiduguri and have troops raiding isolated villages where the militants hide.
Recently, the army announced the re-opening of roads linking the state capital with other parts of Borno. But motorists still line up on the capital outskirts, waiting for a military escort to guard them before they’ll drive out of Maiduguri.
The displaced people of the capital remain unconvinced that they can simply return to their villages.
“Our hope is that when peace is finally restored, we will go back,” said Musa Ghuba, a farmer who fears going back to his isolated village near Gwoza. “But for now, I can’t say when I’m going back.”