A “ghost town” of burnt-out homes and looted properties greeted residents returning to Gamboru in northeast Nigeria for the first time since Chadian forces retook it from Boko Haram.
Scores of people crossed the 300-metre (yard) bridge that forms the border with Cameroon under military escort on Friday to survey the ravaged town.
Boko Haram seized Gamboru, in the violence-wracked Borno state, in August last year, forcing thousands to flee across the frontier to the town of Fotokol, on the other bank of the river in northern Cameroon.
Chadian forces, who have joined the regional fight to crush the Islamist insurgency, retook Gamboru earlier this month, after intense fighting that left hundreds of insurgents dead.
“We met a ghost town strewn with burnt vehicles, destroyed buildings and emptied homes,” Kachalla Moduye said on telephone from Fotokol after a two-hour tour of the town.
“Many homes were burnt in the Boko Haram invasion and in the fighting to reclaim it by Chadian soldiers. Those that were spared were looted by Boko Haram in the five months they stayed in the town.”
Gamboru has been repeatedly targeted in the bitter conflict, which has left more than 13,000 people dead since 2009 and made more than one million homeless.
It was the first town recaptured in the regional fight-back by troops from Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon, which was launched because of dawning fears of Boko Haram’s threat to regional security.
Gamboru residents who hoped to salvage personal effects were disappointed as they found their homes empty.
“There was nothing in my house save the three wooden beds and my old cushion chairs. Every other item was stolen,” Fanna Bukar, a mother-of-three, said.
“Even my sewing machine, which I so much looked forward to salvaging, was gone.”
But even though their possessions were gone, locals said the tour was reassuring.
“Seeing is believing. We are now convinced our town has been liberated and we hope to come back and rebuild our lives once Boko Haram is finally wiped out,” Moduye said.
“I’m sure we will return soon to start a new life,” Bukar added.
– ‘Seeing is believing’ –
Boko Haram fighters meanwhile prevented hundreds of residents from leaving a dozen villages in the nearby Marte district due west from Gamboru, as Chad conducted sweeping aerial and ground attacks.
The villages affected were Kwalaram, Bukar-Mairam, Abbaganaram, Sidir, Kirta, Jibillaram, Zannari, Kutukungulla, Baranga, Kitikime, Krenuwa and Jillam.
“They will not allow everyone to leave and threaten to kill anyone that attempts to flee,” Maji Zaram, who escaped from Kitikime to Fotokol, said.
Zaram said he pretended he was going into the bush to gather firewood but escaped and threw away his axe.
“They (Boko Haram) said we must stay with them in good and in bad times,” he added.
“They said we can’t leave them after partaking in all the booty they brought to us.”
Chadian troops this week pushed deep inside Nigerian territory for the first time, bombarding Dikwa, 50 kilometres (31 miles) from Gamboru to the southwest, near Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold.
Nigeria’s military also said they attacked Sambisa Forest and Gwoza, where the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, first proclaimed the existence of an Islamic state inside Nigeria last year.
Maji Ariye, a Nigerian refugee in Fotokol, said the villagers were “reaping what they sow”, as many had decided to stay voluntarily when Boko Haram moved in.
They said they would rather live under Boko Haram because the militants were bringing in free food and other consumables from raids elsewhere, he claimed.
“Now that the table has turned against their benefactors they want to leave,” he said.
“I warned several people to leave because when soldiers deployed there would be no hiding place for them but they refused to listen.”