It’s a sight Ya Lewa Aji says she will never be able to forget: a baby strapped to its mother’s back, shot dead as the mother lay lifeless on the ground.
But she barely had time to contemplate the scenes of horror unfolding before her as she and her family fled for their lives.
It was at night in 2015 that Boko Haram militants attacked the town of Ngaranam in Borno State, northeastern Nigeria.
They arrived in the middle of the night with guns and machetes and attacked indiscriminately.
“We were sleeping and we heard screams and gunshots. We ran for our lives. We lost everything. The gold they gave me on my wedding day. Our farm items, goats and cows,” Aji said on CNN.
“We thank God we didn’t lose a child, but I’ll never forget seeing a baby shot to death in his mother’s back. His mother was dead too,” he recalled.
Since 2009, the Islamist armed group Boko Haram has waged an insurgency that has displaced more than two million people in the country’s northeast, according to the UN.
Ngaranam, a village of about 3,000 people, was left desolate after the attack as displaced residents fled to the Borno capital Maiduguri and its environs.
Now, after nearly a decade living in refugee camps, Aji has returned to her homeland with her husband, two other wives and some of her 19 children.
They are part of the first wave of Ngaranam residents returning in a joint reconstruction project between the Borno state government, the United Nations and the European Union.
Amidst the joy and celebrations, last Saturday the residents returned to the town.
Under the scorching heat of 38ºC, excited residents gathered to gain access to their new homes. On the walls of the building was a picture of each owner saying “Welcome Home”.
“I take this opportunity to state clearly that we are not deluded that our work is done, there is still more to do. There are more communities to rebuild, more infrastructure to provide and a stronger system of government to be instituted to serve our people,” said Governor Babagana Umara Zulum as he declared the deal open.
According to UNDP, the village has been rebuilt with a primary school, teachers’ quarters, a police outpost and residence, and solar-powered water facilities.
However, it is a bittersweet return for Aji and his family. Her husband Bulama is the leader of the Ngaranam community, which afforded them a certain privilege in the town.
Aji is the first of his three wives and where they once had a farm with 9 rooms and lots of land, they are now forced to settle for a 2 bedroom house that was allotted to them through the program .
Still, he says they’re grateful to have a roof over their heads after years in makeshift tents.
“I thank God and the people who helped us. After almost 10 years I have returned to my country. There is nothing better than being in the land where I was raised.”
The Rebuilding Ngaranam project is part of a program to stabilize hearts and minds in the North East, the region most affected by the insurgency.
It provides new and dignified living spaces to resettle people displaced by Boko Haram.
The regional government announced plans in January to close IDP camps and resettle displaced people by the end of the year.
At the time, Governor Zulum said the camps had been overrun by vices such as “prostitution, drugs and thuggery”.
“The internally displaced are tired of life in the camps. They complain to us day and night about their situation. They have no food and their children are being exploited. They must return to their homes,” he added in an interview in March.
Ngaranam will receive 804 houses in total as part of the partnership with the United Nations Development Program and the Borno State Government (UNDP), according to an agency spokesperson.
The government has planned a total of 304 houses, while the UN agency is building 500 more, 360 of which opened on Saturday.
Similar reconstruction is planned for the hardest-hit areas in the northeast, the UNDP said.
The project was conceived and led by Mohamed Yahaya, UNDP resident representative in Nigeria.
“We have done many resettlement projects but we wanted to do something different. This particular city was chosen as a prototype to bring design for internally displaced people… we were lucky enough to find a brilliant young Nigerian architect to lead the project. I am very proud that we did not have low expectations of the poor and the displaced. The design is a real feature of the way the units were built,” Yahaya said.
Lead architect Tosin Oshinowo also had consultations with the community before construction began, he told CNN.
“I really wanted to understand what their wants and needs were, and involve them in the process. So I came up with a concept… I pitched them… just to bring them in and tell them what will the composites look like, how many units will they have…,” he said.
The buildings are inspired by the Islamic lifestyle and culture and the safety of the residents was considered in the design.
“We also have the general site layout with breaks between them so we never have a clear line of sight. So for security reasons, if there’s any insurgent attack, there’s no people running in a straight line and they effectively become a goal,” said Oshinowo, who runs design firm cmDesign Atelier in Lagos.
Construction began in August 2021 and homes are being let just over a year later.
“I’m really proud to be a part of this project. And I’m really looking forward to having created spaces where, who knows who might grow up here and what great things they’ll do. So you know, for me, this is really about the legacy.” Oshinowo said.
For some residents, these security fears persist and Boko Haram has not completely disappeared.
“We don’t expect anything bad to happen, but it would be good to have more soldiers sent to the community so that we can trust them and feel free to do our work and live in peace,” Hajja Fulata, a local who is leaving again. , he told Reuters.
It is a reality that Yahaya recognizes.
“Boko Haram is still here and one of the ways this program contributes to defeating the insurgency is… you have to look at what caused the insurgency, the root cause of the insurgency. For us, the root cause of the insurgency is the lack of development,” he said.