A home lost, found again: Helping displaced families return home after the Boko Haram devastation in Nigeria
Sixty-year-old Falmata Ali Tela and her family live in Fertilizer, an unfinished housing estate turned into an emergency camp in Maiduguri, Nigeria.
Named for the shuttered fertilizer factory on site, the camp is home to over 15,000 people, many of whom are displaced by the fighting in the northeast between Boko Haram insurgents and the Nigerian military.
The conflict has killed 20,000 people. More than 4,000 women and children have been abducted, and 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes,
Falmata and her extended family - many children, sisters, brothers, husbands and wives - all share one of the unfinished houses allocated to them by the government. They rely mostly on the humanitarian community and local charity to get by but earn a little on the side by keeping goats, sewing dresses, embroidering hats and cooking a little food.
“Life is hard here. We don’t have power or running water, so it’s hard on the children.” - Falmata
Falmata's daughter, Bintu, is 20 years old. She’s unmarried, something that is rare in the northeast as most women are married before the age of 18. She makes traditional hats called hula. Each one takes a few days to sew and fetches US$5. It’s enough to buy extra food for her family.
Bintu made it as far as junior secondary school, but she says she’s not finished with her education.
“I want to study nursing and learn how to be a midwife so I can go back to my village to help women give birth.” - Bintu
Bintu and her family are from Ngwom, a vital trading village just 10 kilometres outside Maiduguri. In 2014, Boko Haram attacked the town burning it to the ground, killing and injuring many people. Falmata was one of those people. An insurgent grabbed her as she fled.
“He pushed my head into the wall and I lost all my teeth. But I got away with my life.” - Falmata
Everybody lost somebody that day. Children, husbands, fathers, aunts, uncles. Speaking about that day is hard for Falmata and her friends. “I get very sad. It wells up, and I just let it out until it goes,” she says.
Tears turn to smiles when the women talk about the future. When asked if they would go home today if they could, they all cheer and clap, “Yes!”
Going home isn’t an option just yet. Boko Haram spent weeks in Ngwom after everyone left and made sure there was little standing in their wake.
Today, there are bullet holes in the walls, and casings and live ammunition strewn about the ground. Before the residents return, all the munitions must be destroyed or removed.
In February 2017, Borno’s Ministry of Reconstruction, Resettlement and Rehabilitation and UNDP began the work of stabilizing Ngwom. Work on clearing the destroyed buildings and construction or rehabilitation of houses and basic infrastructure – schools, clinics, markets and government offices - is under way to allow the villagers to return.
“This is just the starting point. What’s important is that the former residents at least have a place to come back to. …The new houses are to create an initial seed of hope.” – Joerg Kuehnel, Head of Maiduguri Sub-Office, UNDP Nigeria
Ngwom is a pilot for UNDP’s integrated community stabilization package, which looks at the overall needs for communities in the crisis zone.
Basic infrastructure must be rebuilt to provide much needed social structures; livelihoods revitalized so people can provide for themselves and their families; and security and local governance mechanisms in place before displaced communities hardest hit by the crisis can return to their homes.
For Falmata, going home can’t come soon enough. On a recent visit to Ngwom, she examined the modest homes being built for returning residents. They don't compare to her family's old home, with its nine bedrooms, but she doesn't dwell on the disappointment. She focuses instead on the newly built primary school nearby.
“We want our children to be educated," she says. "Because if a child is not educated, that is the genesis of the problem.”