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A Homecoming for Nigerians Who Fled Militants. All That’s Missing Is the ‘Home.’

ABUJA, Nigeria — More than four years ago, Islamist militants from Boko Haram invaded the town of Bama in northeastern Nigeria, setting up a new headquarters there and sending tens of thousands of people fleeing for their lives.

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Emmanuel Akinwotu
Dionne Searcey, New York Times

ABUJA, Nigeria — More than four years ago, Islamist militants from Boko Haram invaded the town of Bama in northeastern Nigeria, setting up a new headquarters there and sending tens of thousands of people fleeing for their lives.

For years many of those residents of Bama lived in squalid camps or other temporary housing as clashes between fighters and the military destroyed their town. Finally, earlier this year the government told residents that it was safe to return.

New homes and new schools — a whole new Bama — awaited as part of a state-sponsored rebuilding program, officials assured them. Many of Bama’s residents leapt at the chance to get their lives back to normal. In April, the government escorted 3,600 of them back home.

But when people arrived in Bama many found homes that were mere shells, with unfinished interiors and no plumbing. Only a handful of schools were functioning, and they became badly overcrowded. The main hospital was poorly staffed and did not have enough working refrigerators to keep medicine from spoiling. There were so few toilets in town that people were defecating in the open.

Bama was supposed to be the government’s showcase in demonstrating how far it had come in winning the war with Boko Haram. Instead, the rebuilt town is merely a veneer — much like the repeated statements Nigerian authorities have made for more than a year that they have defeated the militants.

The proclamations keep coming even as Boko Haram has unleashed an unrelenting stream of suicide bombers on mosques and marketplaces, carried out high-profile kidnappings and attacked military convoys.

In Bama the facade is apparent to residents like Nasiru, a father of five, who joined the government convoy in April. He arrived to find fields still deemed so dangerous that farmers were not allowed to grow tall crops for fear of blocking the view of invading militants.

Conditions in Bama were so poor that Nasiru returned to his temporary home in Maiduguri, 45 miles away, leaving his wife and children behind to keep claim on their new home in hopes things improve. For now, the offerings at markets in Bama are limited and so expensive that he visits every two weeks, bringing food with him. Otherwise, his family would have to rely on handouts from aid groups.

“It is not enough,” Nasiru said. “There is no food there.”

And worse, danger abounds. Boko Haram has already attacked the rebuilt town since residents returned.

The New York Times is identifying Nasiru by only his first name; military officials warned of severe consequences for anyone who complained to the news media about conditions in reopened towns. Many other residents cited safety concerns when airing grievances and asked for anonymity.

Maintaining the image of victory is particularly important for the federal government as election season heats up in Nigeria. President Muhammadu Buhari is facing mounting criticism over his handling of security issues.

Recently, Buhari has been attacked for failing to address bloody clashes between pastoralists looking for grazing land and a growing population of farmers running out of room for their crops. The fight against Boko Haram has particularly vexed the president.

The initial military push against the group routed many fighters from their forest hideouts and put an end to major attacks on military installations. Buhari even scored a victory when he was able to negotiate the release of about 100 of the students from a mass kidnapping in 2014 in a school in the town of Chibok.

But last year the Nigerian military mistakenly bombed a camp for displaced people, killing dozens. And suicide bombings — many carried out by teenage girls — ramped up. Eventually more attacks on soldiers began.

Then, this year, Buhari was roundly criticized after Boko Haram carried out another mass kidnapping of schoolgirls in the northeast community of Dapchi.

Many Nigerians were aghast that something similar could happen again, especially to a president who had campaigned on the promise of defeating Boko Haram. Most of the schoolgirls from Dapchi were returned by the militants themselves. A few are still missing, and another 100 or so of the students from Chibok remain in captivity.

Returning normalcy to Bama carries particular significance for the president.

After they invaded in 2014, militants took over the town, killing dozens of people, torching landmarks and even burning the palace of the traditional leader. Back then the highway outside Bama was littered with land mines and flanked by largely vacant villages occupied or used by Boko Haram as bases to spring attacks. The town had become a shell of itself. Almost all of its infrastructure was destroyed in the insurgency.

One of Buhari’s first victories against Boko Haram was scored when his newly reconfigured military chased the group out of Bama in 2015. They found hundreds of people on the brink of starvation.

Since then about 11,000 new homes have been built and renovated in Bama.

In June, government and military officials proclaimed the area safe in a campaign spread in the news media, through local community leaders and in messages delivered in camps. Boko Haram “can no longer pose any credible threats to your daily routine,” said the leader of the Nigerian Army, Lt. Gen. Tukur Buratai.

Aid workers and government officials, who asked to not be named out of fear of appearing critical of the Buhari administration, have expressed worries that political pressure to reopen the town has caused a new set of challenges.

Bama has only one functioning well, despite the promise from state government that a dozen would be built. Generators powering the well often run out of fuel. The lack of toilets has prompted fears of a cholera outbreak. Only two doctors and a few dozen nurses work at the main hospital, which is still half under construction. Only one of two new medical centers is functioning, and it has only a handful of staff members.

Residents in Bama describe a town without any permanent civilian administration. The local government chairman visits regularly but remains based in Maiduguri. Humanitarian organizations and security officials are the only administrative presence.

Just a mile outside town, soldiers guard a perimeter, restricting returnees from fields they think are too unsafe to work in. Residents complain that the crops they are allowed to grow within the town are limited.

And danger still lurks in Bama.

In the three months since the town reopened, at least three suicide attacks have been foiled by security services. Three weeks after residents returned, a double suicide attack during early morning prayers at a mosque killed four people and injured seven. Victims of the mosque attack had to be transported to a hospital in Maiduguri. Aid organizations say at least one person died on the way. And on June 30, at least two people in a nearby town were killed in attacks by militants.

One aid worker expressed concern that the political significance of Bama had made it a target.

Meanwhile, the government has plans for 100,000 displaced people to return to more far-flung communities in the northeast. In those areas, humanitarian groups are not operating, and aid workers fear the residents will not be able to get enough to eat or have basic medical care.

The flow of people through the northeast continues.

New military operations against Boko Haram have forced about 4,000 people to flee their homes in another part of the region. The military is detaining them to try to determine whether any is a Boko Haram sympathizer, a practice human rights groups have condemned as illegal. The civilians are being kept in the open, exposed to cool temperatures, winds and the seasonal rains.

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