Nigeria refugees who fled Boko Haram still fear returning home
Fanta Adamu thinks she’s more than 80 years old but isn’t sure. What she does know is she couldn’t have escaped without help when Boko Haram threatened to overrun her village in northeast Nigeria.
As the fighting intensified in Sabon Gari, in the far north of Adamawa state, she called one of her sons, who came the 1,200 kilometres from Lagos to get her out.
She was brought to a three-room rented house on the fringes of the state capital, Yola, which she now shares with 19 other family members.
“I’m expecting to go back soon but the problem is the roads. Boko Haram has vandalised everything,” she told AFP on Thursday.
“I’m expecting everything to be bombed. We are afraid to go back.”
Fanta and her family’s situation is far from unusual in Yola, which as a relative safe haven saw its population more than double with those fleeing Boko Haram violence in northern Adamawa and the neighbouring states of Borno and Yobe.
The media focus in recent days may have been on the internally displaced people’s (IDP) camps around Yola, to which 275 women and children hostages were taken after being freed by the military from the militants’ Sambisa Forest stronghold.
But many more refugees are staying in temporary accommodation in and around the city, with thousands bunking down for months with host families or relatives in often heavily overcrowded homes.
– Uncertain future –
Haruna Hamman Furo, permanent secretary of the Adamawa State Emergency Management Agency (ADSEMA), said that at its peak at the turn of the year, there were about 30,000 IDPs in camps in Yola and some 142,000 in host families.
But others say as many as 400,000 flocked to the city, particularly after Mubi, some 200 kilometres (125 miles) to the north, fell to the extremists in early November.
Since Nigeria’s military began a concerted fight-back against the Islamists with the help of Chad, Niger and Cameroon in February, the numbers have gone down, said Furo.
Overall, some 1.5 million people have been left homeless by the violence since the insurgency began six years ago.
Most have remained in Nigeria, although others have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. All are putting an additional strain on local resources.
Fanta and her family receive help from the Nigerian Red Cross, which distributes foodstuffs such as rice, cooking oil and salt as well as mats and mosquito nets.
Church groups, mosques, the state government and the American University of Nigeria (AUN) distribute food and clothing to those who fled with nothing.
The AUN, which is based in Yola, said earlier this year it was feeding some 250,000 people and talks of a prolonged humanitarian crisis.
In the meantime, the men in Fanta’s family are looking for work in Yola while some of the children go to school.
Despite the semblance of normality, they yearn to go home.
“You can’t compare living in a different place in a part of the world that you don’t know,” said Aishatu Ado, 35. “We are not enjoying it.
“Even if we go back, we don’t know the situation because the farms have been destroyed. We are just waiting to see what will happen.”
– Living in hope –
Zainab Ali washes trousers and pink school tunics in a black bucket, wringing out the water and hanging them on the line to dry in the scorching midday sun.
Strapped to her back as she bends and stretches is eight-month-old Karima.
All the displaced have a story to tell of their frantic escape. Ali, 37, is no different.
“I suffered a lot because running from Madagali to here wasn’t easy. Some of my friends gave birth on the way,” she said.
“We trekked for one day before finding a car to bring us to Yola. Four or five of us were pregnant.”
Karima was born in the rented house, where chickens running loose in the yard are shooed off mats on which the women and young children sit under the shade of straw thatch.
With Boko Haram pushed out of captured territory, there is increasing talk of more displaced people leaving camps in Yola and across the north and finally going home.
Ali is confident that day will come soon, with Nigeria’s incoming president Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, due to be sworn in on May 29.
“From what we have seen, things will change. He’s a soldier and since he’s won the election the violence has come down,” she said.