In 2014, Boko Haram seized the town of Gwoza in northeast Nigeria, killing hundreds of people. The insurgents declared that Gwoza would be the seat of their self-proclaimed caliphate. It was a perfect place for them, protected by a mountainside, with caves and tunnels for hiding out.
The terror network’s fighters held the town for only a few months before the Nigerian army drove them out. Gwoza is now firmly under military control. Some residents who fled have returned. And there’s been an influx of newcomers who’ve been uprooted, often multiple times, by the violence of Boko Haram.
Even though their hopes of controlling a swath of land across the northeast have been dashed, the eight-year-long Boko Haram insurgency has driven more than 2 million people from their homes in northeast Nigeria and killed an estimated 20,000. And the suicide bombings continue.
In their wake, Boko Haram has left a regional humanitarian catastrophe, says the U.N.
Uwani Musa Dure, 25,fled Gwoza after the first Boko Haram Raid of 2014, and recently has returned. She is one of the scores of mostly women and children who are living at a settlement for the displaced in Gwoza, called 20 Houses camp.
Her return is tinged with great sadness. During the first Boko Haram attack on the town, Musa Dure’s 10-year-old son, Umaru, and eight-year-old daughter, Hadiza, were both abducted by the group, she says. Also missing are Musa Dure’s mother, her brother Ibrahim and her sister Fadimatu, then 14. She says these family members were kidnapped.
And she is not sure of their fate. “When I came back after the town was liberated by the army, I heard from people that my mother was at the Giwa military barracks in Maiduguri, but that my children had died,” Musa Dure says. “So I’m not sure what the reality is. But I’m determined to find them. I’ve been trying to locate my family for more than a year — to Yola, to Mubi, to Maiduguri, even to Kano — all over — looking for them.”
It pains her to see other people with their families, she says. “I become so nostalgic, so sorrowful,” she says. “I’m constantly thinking about my family members. I think about them so much that I can’t even sleep at night. I feel faint sometimes, I feel desperate. We’re tired of living like this. We are looking to God to make all this end.”
This young woman’s story mirrors many others struggling through the crisis in northeast Nigeria, families divided by strife, abductions and violence.
Security for the people living in Gwoza remains a perennial concern, though the Nigerian army says the insurgents have not succeeded in infiltrating the town since they were pushed out three years ago. Yet Boko Haram fighters still hide out in the nearby Sambisa Forest, a mere ten miles away, we’re told.
That’s where the group is believed to have held captive nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped in an audacious mass abduction by Boko Haram at the students’ boarding school three years ago. These Chibok girls — that’s the name of the school and the town — are among the thousands of people kidnapped by the extremists.
The situation has improved now, says Ahmed Jaha, a Gwoza native and Borno State Commissioner for Higher and Special Education. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re making a remarkable improvement in the security situation and people are returning back home,” says Jaha. He says security is so much better that almost a third of Gwoza’s original 350,000 residents are back, hospitals, clinics, schools and other state institutions are being rebuilt and local government is operating.
But not everyone agrees with his optimistic assessment. A number of the displaced people and other Gwoza residents dispute official claims that the education system is functioning and that many children are back at school.
In Gwoza, the shadow of the brief caliphate headquarters of Boko Haram lingers over the town. Asked whether he believes that having been the seat the extremist group is a blight on Gwoza, the education commissioner responds furiously. He lambasts the network, which has repeatedly targeted schools, Maiduguri University and other higher education institutions across the northeast. The name Boko Haram roughly translates as “Western education is haram” — forbidden.
Evidence of Boko Haram’s violent passage in Gwoza is everywhere in town. International relief organizations are trying to help restore essential services. The U.N. children’s agency, UNICEF, organizes clinics in tents nestled among brick buildings in a compound that was once a health center and was reportedly destroyed by Boko Haram.
On the walls of burned out buildings we find naïve charcoal drawings, apparently the work of extremist fighters, of weaponry — from rocket-propelled grenade launchers to rifles to armored vehicles. On other walls were tell-tale signs of Boko Haram’s short-lived caliphate, including images of the group’s black flag, based on the Islamic State flag.
Such details are lost on Musa Dure, the desperate young returnee to Gwoza. She’s focused on hunting for her missing family. She says she has searched for her relatives all over northeast Nigeria and beyond. She prays they’re still alive. In a town with no functioning cell phone network, she makes an appeal to a handful of visiting journalists.
“Will you please share my story?” is Musa Dure’s plea. “Maybe that will help me find them.”