BAMA, Nigeria (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the northern Nigerian town of Bama the streets are eerily quiet. Houses lie empty, riddled with bullet holes, and symbols of the jihadist group Boko Haram are painted on the walls.
Bama, once the militants’ stronghold, was liberated from the Islamist fighters by the Nigerian army in March 2015, but is only reached safely by helicopter - the roads still too dangerous because of the risk of ambush by the insurgents.
Despite its ghostly atmosphere and violent history, the town is now a safe haven for around 10,000 people, among more than two million in Nigeria who have fled areas held by Boko Haram.
Two years ago, when militants seized Bama and rounded up all the men, 55-year-old Malam Wana hid in his house for a month, surviving on grain and sending his wife out to collect water.
When Wana was eventually discovered by Boko Haram fighters, they took him to the yard of Bama prison, crowded with men.
“They spared the older men, but took the others out of the prison and shot them all,” said Wana, who was released due to his elderly appearance before fleeing to a nearby village.
Since the town’s liberation, Wana has lived in Bama’s camp for those uprooted by the conflict. The walled compound, full of makeshift shelters covered by tarpaulins bearing the names of aid groups, is home to 10,000 people who have fled fighting.
Some like Wana are from Bama itself - forbidden from leaving the confines of the camp as the town has been designated a military security zone. Most camp dwellers are from surrounding villages, many of which are still controlled by insurgents.
Those who have reached Bama are the lucky ones. Abdi Farah, an official at the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) in Maiduguri told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that some areas still controlled by Boko Haram are out of the reach of aid agencies.
In many areas north of Bama, people are suffering “famine-like conditions” and millions are in need of urgent food aid in order to survive, according to several United Nations agencies.
Although they feel safer in Bama, the thousands displaced by conflict face a new set of problems on arrival. Kelu, 20, had just been dropped off by pick-up truck with her two infant sons.
“I left my village because of fear,” she said. “(Boko Haram) used to come to the village and would take all of our possessions, everything, even our shoes. Now I have nothing,”
Security is still a concern, even in Bama. The prison where Wana was taken is now used as a processing centre by the army where arrivals are screened before being allowed into the camp.
“They call people from our village (who already live in the camp) and ask them if we are Boko Haram. If they say yes then you will be taken to a prison in Maiduguri,” Kelu added.
The camp provides counselling and medication to treat mental illnesses. The seven-year-old insurgency aimed at creating an Islamist caliphate - in which thousands have been killed and women abducted and raped - has left psychological scars on many.
“Fifty percent of (those in the camp) have depression. The family break-up is part of it. You see families with no father, the breadwinner. Some are orphans and widows,” said a psychiatric nurse at the camp who did not want to give his name.
Once new arrivals reach Bama most have no way of earning a living and farming is impossible due to security concerns and restricted movement outside the camp.
A livelihood programme run by the camp manager, Ali Musudi, employs people in carpentry. Some of the women work in the school which also helps train them to become teachers, but most are idle and completely reliant on food handouts from the WFP.
In the centre of the camp children play on slides and swings built especially for them. The camp school is a cluster of five tents. “How many oranges and bananas?” shout the pupils in unison, reciting dictations from their English teacher.
For some of the students learning English, Arabic and social studies, this is their first taste of schooling in the rural state, where conflict has crippled education.
Yet this is not the case for all. Aba Modi, 12, attended one of Boko Haram’s Islamic schools, or madrasas, when he lived in Banki, a town under the militants’ control for two years.
“They only taught the Koran at our school. All day, we were just memorising the Koran,” Modi said.
Occasionally the pupils would be taken out of class to learn to shoot a weapon or how to crawl under fire. Modi eventually fled Banki with his brother in the middle of the night.
“Life is completely different now. I enjoy coming to school,” he said. “Some of the things they [Boko Haram] taught are correct. Being taught about the Koran is right, but there is nothing in the Koran that says you should hurt people or take their possessions.”
Modi said most of his friends did not believe the ultra-hardline Islamist teachings either, but some still joined Boko Haram. “They offered them money or even a motorcycle,” he said.
Around 4.7 million people are in need of emergency food aid in Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe states, said a recent report by the U.S.-based Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET).
Some 400,000 children are at risk from famine in the three states, 75,000 of whom could die from hunger within months, the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF) said in September. [nL8N1C54E7]
Yet the WFP, which provides food in the camp, only began operations in oil-rich Nigeria in March this year.
In 2017, it hopes to reach 1.8 million people in need of food aid, said WFP’s Nigeria country director Sory Ouane.
“If we do not get funding we might face a humanitarian catastrophe in the area. The biggest challenge is access and security and we need funding to scale up our assistance,” he said by phone from Abuja.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) earlier this month doubled its humanitarian funding appeal for northeast Nigeria to $1 billion in 2017.
For now, the displaced, like Malam Wana, are relieved to be living in relative safety, with food aid provided by WFP.
“When I first came to the camp the situation was terrible. Now we have three meals a day. I have two wives and nine children and they are all healthy,” he said.
Editing by Ros Russell and Kieran Guilbert; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org