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How can I take myself to death?, reluctant Boko Haram displaced asks

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Bitrus Yakubu has an uplifting story about how he was reunited with his pregnant wife weeks after they were separated fleeing from Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria.

His wife, Maryam, then gave birth to twins Grace and Sidi seven months ago. They all now live together in a tent in one of more than a dozen camps that dot Maiduguri for those made homeless by the conflict.

But ask the 45-year-old farmer whether he will return to his home town of Baga, on the shores of Lake Chad in the far north of Borno state, and he shakes his head.

“How can I take myself to death?” he asked. “Only when (Baga) is secure and everything has been put back in place, that’s when we will go back.”

The yearning for home is understandably strong in the camp, where life revolves around communal tents and long days are spent chatting under trees or seeking shade from the harsh sun in any available shadow.

Martina Sumaila, originally from Monguno, 60 kilometres (37 miles) from Baga, and Ramatu John, who comes from Gwoza, in the southeast of Borno state, both managed to go home last year.

But they returned to Maiduguri soon afterwards and painted a bleak picture of burnt and looted houses, polluted water supplies, stolen livestock and a lack of food supplies.

“There are soldiers on the road and in the town but in the surrounding villages, the gunmen are there and they make incursions,” Sumaila, a 45-year-old mother of eight, told AFP.

“We dare not go into the bush. If somebody drives with his vehicle, they will kill him and take the vehicle.”

– ‘Boko Haram are everywhere’ –

Nigeria’s government maintains it now has the upper hand against Boko Haram, nearly seven years after the start of the Islamist insurgency that has killed at least 17,000 and displaced some 2.6 million.

“Life is getting better,” advertisements on the state-run television station NTA proclaim. “All occupied territories have been recovered. Nigeria is winning the war against Boko Haram.”

Certainly the Borno state capital Maiduguri, with its heavy military presence, checkpoints and security patrols, appears relatively calm and its inhabitants seem more positive about the future.

But attacks such as that on January 31 near one of the camps for displaced people 10 kilometres from the city that left at least 85 dead suggest Boko Haram is still an active and deadly force.

John, a 49-year-old mother of five, returned to her village of Goshe near Gwoza with a military convoy in July last year, only to come back to Maiduguri three months later.

She dismisses outright the suggestion of another trip.

“Boko Haram are in my village,” she said. “If our people return with Boko Haram everywhere in my village, how do we get in?”

– False sense of security –

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari declared in December that Boko Haram were “technically defeated”, fulfilling a promise that got him elected of a swift end to the insurgency.

He had promised to bring the conflict to a close by the end of last year.

Focus has since switched to the future of the two million or so internally displaced. Last week the Borno state government said it plans to return 50,000 to their homes this month.

But foreign agencies involved in providing shelter, food and healthcare for IDPs in Maiduguri privately voice doubts about the wisdom of the policy. One called it “suicide mission”.

Mohammed Kanar, northeast coordinator for Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency, indirectly suggested not everywhere may be safe.

Internally displaced people (IDPs) being escorted home by soldiers were only being taken to holding camps “wherever there’s a military presence”, he told AFP.

Then there is the cost of reconstruction in an already chronically under-developed region, heaping an enormous financial burden on a struggling national economy hit by the fall in global oil prices.

Theophilus Danjuma, who heads a presidential committee on resettlement and reconstruction, has put the short-term cost of reconstruction at more than two trillion naira ($1 billion).

For now, life remains on hold for the tens of thousands of IDPs still in Maiduguri.

Naomi Danjuma, a 30-year-old mother of five, says she will eventually return to Baga, where Boko Haram killed her father, an elder brother, her uncles and a cousin.

But the conditions have to be right: food has to be available, help at hand for reconstructing homes, plus schools and healthcare for her children.

“They need to give us… some incentive to rebuild our lives,” she said.

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