Thousands of Nigerian refugees, who fled to neighbouring Cameroon in 2014 to escape Boko Harm militants, have returned to the liberated northeastern town of Gamboru only to find their homes and their livelihoods destroyed, residents and officials told AFP Friday.
Over the past three days more than 15,000 Nigerians have crossed the 300-metre (yard) river bridge that forms the border with Cameroon, following calls by military and local leaders for residents to return, an official in Gamboru said.
“More are coming in everyday,” he added.
Boko Haram fighters seized Gamboru in violence-wracked Borno state in August 2014, forcing thousands to flee across the border to the town of Fotokol on the other bank of the river in northern Cameroon.
Chadian forces reclaimed Gamboru in February last year, after intense fighting that left hundreds of insurgents dead, as part of a regional military coalition put together to crush the Islamist group which has become a threat to regional security.
“We found a looted and burnt out town which is a shadow of its former self,” said Abacha Mari, one of those who returned to Gamboru on Wednesday.
“More than nine-tenths of the buildings in the town have been damaged by fire while the rest have been washed away by the rains,” he added.
“Everything was looted and the streets are barely recognisable.”
Gamboru has been repeatedly targeted in the Boko Haram insurrection which has cost the lives of 17,000 people in Nigeria and made over 2.5 million homeless since 2009.
Although Boko Haram were forced out of Gamboru 11 months ago, the refugees say they are only now beginning to feel confident enough to return because the Nigerian army has sent a large contingent to the town.
The return of the refugees is being coordinated by Cameroonian soldiers and local officials in Gamboru, the returning residents said.
The Nigerian refugees and their belongings were screened at the Cameroonian side of the bridge by soldiers using sniffer dogs to detect explosives before they were allowed cross back into Nigeria, where officials were ready to welcome them and provided them with the necessary papers for their return.
Returning residents scoured their empty homes in the vain hope of finding any personal effects neglected by Boko Haram.
“Nobody found anything in their homes which have been looted and burnt,” said returnee Ibrahim Wanzan.
The destruction that they found came as no surprise. Some of the refugees had already visited Gamboru under the protection of Chadian soldiers in February 2015 and described it then as a”ghost town”.
A key source of the locals’ livelihood, the market, has also been destroyed. It formerly attracted traders from neighbouring Chad and Cameroon.
“Our main problem is food and how to rebuild our homes,” Wanzan said.
The returned residents have been living on the food they brought from Fotokol and desperately hope to receive aid from the Nigerian government before supplies run out, Mari said.
The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) plans to send aid to Gamboru in coming days.
“We are aware of the return of thousands of Gamboru residents from Cameroon and we are working to send relief items to them in the next few days,” a NEMA official told AFP.