At least 1,200 of the more than 100,000 people displaced by Boko Haram violence in Nigeria’s northeastern town of Bama have returned, officials and returnees said Thursday.
Bama, a major trading hub on the road to Cameroon and home to 270,000 people, was captured in September 2014, forcing residents to flee to Maiduguri, the state capital.
Borno state information commissioner Mohammed Bulama told AFP the returnees are male residents coming back after the town was partly re-built.
“We have transported 1,200 persons to Bama in two batches on Monday and today (Thursday) as part of the phased return of residents that fled after Boko Haram invaded the town in 2014,” he said.
“We intend to gradually return over 100,000 people to Bama in coming months as part of the reconstruction, resettlement and rehabilitation of IDPs (internally displaced persons) by the Borno state government,” he said.
One of the returnees, Umar Bukar, said they were screened and issued with a badge before being taken in trucks to the town under security escort.
Each returnee was given a bag of rice, a bag of millet with 10,000 naira ($27.70) to “start a new life,” said Bukar who spoke to AFP on the phone from the town.
He added that the male returnees would wait to see if the security situation has improved before bringing their families from Maiduguri.
The Boko Haram insurgency which broke out in 2009, has killed at least 20,000 and displaced more than 2.6 million, forcing them into camps and host communities.
By the time Bama was retaken by Nigerian troops in March 2015, 85 percent of the town had been destroyed by the Islamists.
State officials said it would require 40 billion naira (94 million euros, $111 million) to rebuild the town, a staggering amount in the impoverished region.
Abba Jato Mohammed, chairman of the state relocation committee told reporters last month some 11,000 houses had been reconstructed in Bama.
– ‘Security still a concern’ –
Bukar said only one-third of the town has since been rebuilt, but displaced residents said they were ready to return to rebuild their homes.
“We are ever willing to return to Bama and rebuild our homes on our own if the government allows us,” resident Mohammed Kassim told AFP.
“Given the pace of the reconstruction work it will take years to rebuild every home and we can’t wait that long,” he said.
The desire to return to their homes may be due to squalid conditions in camps where they rely on insufficient food handouts from donor agencies.
“Life in the camps is difficult, with little food, water and limited toilets. None of us would stay if we had a choice”, said another Bama displaced person, Kulo Gana.
In September last year 3,000 displaced people hit the streets in Maiduguri to protest over food shortages and poor living conditions in the camps, demanding they be allowed to return home.
The previous month a cholera outbreak in the camps from a water shortage and poor sanitation killed around 50 people, mainly children.
The returnees however said they are still worried about possible Boko Haram attacks, especially after recent deadly attacks near Maiduguri.
“Security is still a source of concern to us which is why we all left our families back in Maiduguri for now,” Bukar said.
“We will wait until we assess the security situation before we decide if it is safe for them to join us.”