BANKI, Nigeria, May 4 – The Nigerianarmy calls it “New Banki City”, an optimistic name conjuring up visions of modern housing. The reality is an overcrowded camp for 32,000 desperate people made homeless by Boko Haram.
In this ravaged corner of northeast Nigeria, the Islamists frequently launch attacks on military convoys, unleash suicide bombers and litter the surrounding roads and arid bush with mines.
Even the most mundane tasks are treacherous. Desperate for firewood to cook food, 25-year-old Bulama Zarami didn’t make it far out of the camp before he triggered a mine.
Shifting from side to side in pain, Zarami says he still feels shrapnel from the explosive in his wounded left leg, which is swollen at the knee and wrapped with blood-stained gauze.
“With Boko Haram we face danger,” Zarami told AFP.
The Nigerian military recaptured Banki in September 2015 after fierce battles with the Islamist militants, whose insurgency has killed at least 20,000 in Nigeria alone since 2009.
Along with other towns in Borno state including Monguno, Dikwa and Rann, Banki is an example of the enormous challenge facing Nigeria as it tries to resuscitate civilian life.
“We can’t say peace has returned,” warned Commander Kenechukwu Otubo, from the 152 battalion stationed in Banki. “They (Boko Haram) have a lot of hideouts we can’t get to.”
In Banki, the army’s urgent priority isn’t to build schools or construct homes, it’s digging a trench around the ever-expanding perimeter swollen by internally displaced people (IDPs).
“The unit (battalion) is still faced with the challenge of protecting IDPs, it becomes inevitable to keep expanding and barricading all entry and exit points,” said Captain Aminu Abdulmalik.
“If the town is not excavated in the nearest future, we will be exposed to suicide bomb attacks and supporters of Boko Haram terrorists.”
– Presumed guilty –
Banki, located on the southeastern rim of Borno state, used to be a bustling trading town but today is one of the last vestiges of Boko Haram’s dominance in the region.
It’s part of a crescent of off-limits territory that arches past Lake Chad where the battle against Boko Haram is still raging, despite contrary claims from the military and government.
With the enemy so close, everyone is presumed guilty in Banki camp, a mix of bombed-out concrete buildings and white tents protected by a four-metre-high (13 feet) barricade of corrugated metal sheets.
No-one is allowed to leave the patrolled perimeter without permission or keep cell phones out of fear of contacting Boko Haram.
There are few men of fighting age because most have been taken to army-run detention centres.
What remains are the elderly, women and children, who draw eerie pictures of war on the walls with charcoal, depicting swarms of helicopters and men firing lines of bullets into the sky.
Children are estimated to represent a third of the population in Banki. They wear tattered clothes and roam the sandy streets of the camp in packs.
Without school, they have nothing else to do.
The older generation worries that the inertia of camp life will provide more recruits for the jihadists, who want to create a hardline Islamic state in northeast Nigeria.
“The issue of Boko Haram happened as a result of staying idle without any education,” said 56-year-old teacher Alhaji Bulama. “A lack of orientation will make the children join them.”
– Influx of refugees –
Current conditions in Banki may soon get worse when some 78,000 Nigerian refugees return from across the border in Cameroon.
The influx of people, who will likely be in desperate need of food and medical care, is “definitely a concern”, said Henry Kwenin, of the International Organization for Migration.
It will strain already over-stretched troops and supplies just before the rainy season, which floods roads and makes humanitarian access difficult, if not impossible.
“Banki isn’t a place with enough infrastructure to receive those people,” said Kwenin in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri.
They have reason to be concerned.
Just a year ago, 10 people were said to be dying of hunger every day in Banki.
The UN said in April there was a growing risk of mass deaths in Nigeria, where famine-like conditions have been reported.
Those returning, though, are hoping for a return to normal life.
Trader Abubakar Madu was able to afford the 4,000-naira fee ($13, 11 euros) for himself and his family to take the 24-hour journey by road from Minawao camp in Cameroon.
“I want to live happily with my family,” he said but concluded it was hard to say when that might happen.