DIFFA, NIGER - A few miles east of Diffa, the regional capital, the national guard of Niger patrols in the sand, aiming to secure the border with Nigeria and prevent militants from striking on Niger soil.
Ready to open fire with their rifles, the soldiers are looking for any potential threat. Boko Haram militants from Nigeria could be anywhere. The jihadist group has been damaged, but still has the ability to attack by suicide mission or with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Lieutenant Moussa Daouda Rabiou, the commander of the village of Assaga position, is "extremely cautious with mines,” he tells VOA. “We trained our men and with our vehicles, we don't follow the road if there is any suspicious footprint."
The patrol is advancing toward the Nigerian border, with soldiers on foot and jeeps, carrying cannons, progressing slowly.
In the village of Zenamn Kelouri, villagers have started to return. The U.N. refugee agency estimated in January that 100,000 people were driven from their homes in southeast Niger in attacks by Boko Haram. The UNHCR said 170 villages had been emptied.
Moussa Kadré, age 90, never left. His children bring him food from the nearby refugee camp.
"I want to thank our security forces,” he tells VOA.
The army of Niger keeps secret the number of soldiers who have been deployed along the border. But, according to VOA sources, there are at least a thousand for the entire Diffa region.
The army has managed to earn the trust of the population, which is the first line of defense to fight Boko Haram. The militants are just on the other shore of the Komadougou River, the natural border between Niger and Nigeria.
The Nigerian army has not permanently retaken Damasak or Malam Fatori, so Boko Haram still can launch operations into the Diffa region.
"I can assure you that the Nigerian army is very active; it is operating,” says Colonel Abdou Sidikou Issa, the deputy chief of staff for the Niger army. “We coordinate the fight together. You cannot say there are uncontrolled zones."
While the army of Niger has the right to pursue militants into Nigeria if a direct threat is detected, Boko Haram is usually invisible until it strikes.