No way home for victims of Boko Haram
NGALA, Nigeria – Seen from above in a helicopter, the straight white walls of Ngala camp in northeast Nigeria carve a misshapen star out of the dry brown scrub.
There are 55,000 people living in tents and straw huts inside the geometric garrison, protected from Boko Haram jihadists by the military.
Though the city of Ngala is less than a kilometer away, these people can't go back to a normal life.
"Boko Haram is still here, the only thing we can do is wait for food," said Aishi, a 50-year-old woman with deep lines in her tired face.
Over the past year, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari's government has made repeated announcements that Boko Haram is close to being defeated and that thousands of people are returning home.
"They are done for," said Buhari early this month. "The security situation in Nigeria had improved significantly."
But many reclaimed towns, like Ngala, are charred, looted ruins still vulnerable to Boko Haram attacks.
So the people live in the guarded camps, cut off from any means of supporting themselves and dependent on external aid, while international humanitarian organizations warn of an impeding famine.
"Here we can't do anything, we can't leave the camp because Boko Haram will attack us," said Abdullahi Asuha, a traditional chief.
"Boko Haram has plundered our crops, our herds and burned our land."
Authorities estimate that 3,000 people have come to the Ngala camp in the past month, seeking shelter and food in a devastated region.
Today virtually all of Nigeria's northeast is under military control.
Signs of the 7-year Boko Haram war that has killed over 20,000 people and displaced more than 2.6 million are everywhere.
Lampposts with broken solar panels lie on the ground, while enormous craters left by exploded mines have shattered the roads.
Most highways are blocked, civil authorities haven't returned, and the majority of the displaced people are in camps scattered across northeast Borno state.
But Nigeria's military insists that things are back to normal.
"The region is stable compared to what it has been, we have restored normalcy," said Lieutenant-Colonel Patrick Omote, who commands Battalion 3 in Ngala.
Omote said his men had "carried out many clearing operations" and destroyed Boko Haram training camps.
The jihadists may be weakened, but instability and sporadic fighting still break out.
A month ago, a strategic axis between the capital of Borno state, Maiduguri, and the town of Ngala, near the Cameroon border, was opened up allowing trade between the two countries.
But only convoys escorted by heavily armed soldiers were allowed on the road, and Boko Haram still launched frequent ambushes.
'Everything under their control'
Abulkarim Gambo knows that Boko Haram is still a threat.
The newcomer to Ngala camp recently walked from Garal, a town around 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, with his wife and 14 children.
He was living in the area under Boko Haram control for three years.
"They collected our corn and millet, they watched our prayers and movements, everything was under their control," Gambo said.
A month ago, Gambo watched as the army fought Boko Haram in "violent clashes" for control of Garal.
"The soldiers told us to come here," Gambo said, fingering his rosary for comfort.
"Without that, we would still be in their hands."
With the exception of Maiduguri, Ngala is one of the few places international aid organizations can access, along with the Bama, Dikwa, and Monguno camps.
When Doctors Without Borders was finally able to visit the camp in September, they warned of starvation.
"The humanitarian emergency in the northeast of Nigeria has reached catastrophic levels," the French charity said.
The United Nations said in November that 75,000 children risk dying in "a few months", a claim that the Nigerian government recently dismissed as "hyperbolic." – Célia Lebur, Agence France-Presse / Rappler.com