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Amid security concerns, Nigeria displaced head home from camps

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Usman Mohamed's hometown of Baga on the shores of Lake Chad was once overrun by jihadists, forcing him to flee, like millions of others across the restless region.

Now, with what officials say is improved security and a need for people to return to farms as famine looms, he is among hundreds of thousands of Nigerians being urged to go home after almost a decade spent in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in the state capital Maiduguri.

But on his way back home last month, the 53-year-old was shot by insurgents in a road ambush, he told AFP from his hospital bed, lying next to a dozen other weapon-wounded victims of the conflict.

His story is one of many others indicating that areas of Borno state are still unsafe, despite an overall decline in attacks on civilians compared with previous years.

The government is however pushing ahead with its plan to close all camps by 2026, and so far it has shut seven of Maiduguri's 13 camps which host between 100,000 and 150,000 people.

The hope is to end what it says is an unsustainable over-reliance on humanitarian assistance.

Under the programme, people may relocate to towns closest to their village of origin which has a military presence or to areas where soldiers are ready to be deployed.

But aid groups cannot go to most of those locations because they are at risk of being directly targeted by insurgents.

In any case, the authorities have banned aid to 11 of the towns, saying it would only create more dependency.

"Where there are difficulties, the government itself will step in and provide," said Borno Governor Babagana Zulum.

No one is forced to go home, officials insist, and displaced people can opt for financial support to stay in Maiduguri.

But at least a dozen IDPs told AFP that the money provided -- up 100,000 naira ($240, 210 euros) in a lump sum - is insufficient, and so most decide to pack their belongings and leave.

Behind trenches

Among those who opted to stay in Maiduguri, Bintu Ali, 60, and her 29-year-old daughter Hadiza Bala are trying to survive.

In addition to the government aid they received, Bala makes about half a dollar a day from odd jobs.

They don't know how long they will survive in the temporary shelter they share, with no amenities available nearby.

"Life was better in the camp, here we have nothing," Ali said. But both believe they are at least safe, unlike back home in their village.

Despite the troop presence in towns across the state, insurgents are never far away, and they continue to roam rural areas.

As a result, many IDPs choose to stay behind the trenches built to protect garrison towns, either in government-provided housing or in existing camps.

Where aid workers can go, they are struggling to respond to the ongoing influx of people at a time when humanitarian needs are already dire.

In Bama, the second-largest town in the state, a camp built for 35,000 people is now hosting about twice that number, with fresh arrivals each day since last August, said a humanitarian official who asked to remain anonymous.

Martin Griffiths, the UN's under-secretary General for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, told AFP that enabling people "to understand where they are going and why they're going, and enabling us to get there ahead of time... to set up facilities... that's where perhaps we might have all done better."

'Dying of hunger'

At Gubio camp on the outskirts of Maiduguri, Safiratu Solomon is among many IDPs who would like to go home despite the ongoing conflict. The 17-year-old said she was tired of poor living conditions and sitting idle.

Food distributions stopped seven months ago in the camp, home to more than 22,000 people, according to her mother Martha, and they are too afraid to go work on farms outside the city limits.

The government told them last year that the camp would close, without giving a date.

At Dalori II camp, on the other side of the city, more IDPs are anxiously awaiting news.

Seven months ago, state officials carried out a head count to identify actual IDPs and give them a registration card that would enable them to return home and entitle them to some food.

But since then, nothing has happened, three IDPs told AFP, adding that they were waiting for transportation home or at least money and food for the journey.

In this camp as well, where around 11,000 people live, food assistance stopped four months ago, they said.

"Children are dying from hunger. Even yesterday an elderly man fell down from hunger," said one of the IDPs, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The UN agency in charge of coordinating the humanitarian response and the World Food Programme did not respond to questions about the lack of food in both camps.

Isa Gusau, spokesman for the governor said, however, that the government was "looking into the matter" and that "profiling is ongoing at Dalori II camp ahead of a major livelihood intervention and should start soon at Gubio camp."

At the gates of Maiduguri, dozens of massive military trucks were parked on the side of the road, full of ammunition, ready for deployment.

Another truck went by, this one carrying several IDPs and their belongings, heading into the unknown

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