Bama, Boko Haram’s former stronghold still in ruins

The largest town that Boko Haram ever controlled still lies in ruins, frozen in time nearly 18 months after Nigeria’s military recaptured it from the Islamist militants.

Bama’s streets are deserted and those people who are still in the area are camped out in the grounds of a hospital guarded by the army and in dire need of humanitarian aid.

Hundreds of buildings are burnt-out shells with no roofs. Downed power cables are strewn on the streets. The bush is reclaiming many of the abandoned homes.

Apart from the occasional military patrol, it is like a ghost town.

Close to the border crossing with Cameroon, Bama in Nigeria’s north-eastern Borno state was once a thriving commercial hub and home to 250,000 people.

Boko Haram controlled the town for seven months before it was retaken by the Nigerian military in March 2015.

At a petrol station the rusting hulks of three cars sit idly beside the pumps.

“We heard the guns, we heard the bombs, and we started running,” one man told me describing the day Boko Haram first attacked.

Locals say hundreds, perhaps, thousands died in the violence – no-one knows for sure. The militants threw bodies off the bridge into the river on the outskirts of town.

As security slowly improves in the north-east, the full extent of the devastation and human suffering caused by the Boko Haram insurgency is being laid bare.
‘Survival of the fittest’

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For the third year running, most farmers here have been unable to plant crops because of landmines in the field and insurgent attacks.

And in order to provide security and also as part of a strategy to starve out Boko Haram, the Nigerian army has closed all markets.

But it is a tactic that has led to chronic food shortages.

Aid agencies are now warning of a growing humanitarian crisis in the region; the UN says 250,000 children are suffering from severe malnutrition – and as many as 50,000 could die unless they receive immediate assistance.

Soldiers are still working to retake villages and rescue those fleeing the militants.

Most of the 10,000 people at the Bama hospital camp come from outlying villages and their needs are enormous.

A mother and her severely malnourished three-year-old son were brought to the camp a few days ago, picked up by the military as they were wandering along a road close to the bush.

“We only had grain to eat,” she says as she sits by the bedside of son.

He is fighting for his life in the hospital and the doctors are struggling to save him.

“We had no money to buy food. In our village it was the survival of the fittest,” she says.
‘Bride died of hunger’

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In June the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres said nearly 200 people had starved to death in the camp in the previous month.

Conditions are getting better but aid agencies say a lot more needs to be done.

“Having worked in Darfur, Chechnya, and South Sudan, this is about as bad as it gets,” said Toby Lanzer, the UN’s regional humanitarian co-ordinator, during a visit to Bama.

Millions of people in Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger are now entirely dependent on their governments and the international community for food hand-outs.

Even if people had money, there are few places in the countryside to buy food – and many of the roads can only be navigated in a military convoy, severely hampering trade.

One farmer who is desperate to return to Bama is Bulama Mohammed, a father of nine who fled to the state capital, Maiduguri, two years ago.

Boko Haram militants abducted his 13-year-old daughter, Zeinab, who is still missing.

“Life is terrible here,” the 39-year-old says, sitting in a wooden hut in a makeshift camp close to the city centre.

“I know four people who have died of hunger this week. One of them was a young bride who just got married.”

Occasionally Mr Mohammed gets labouring jobs but most of the time he is forced to beg to feed his children.

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It is a miserable life.

Like many who may have found refuge from the fighting, his future is far from secure and it could be a long wait before he returns home.

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