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Fleeing Boko Haram, thousands cling to a road to nowhere

They come to the road in search of food. They come looking for water. They come because it is the only safe place they can find.

More than 130,000 people have amassed along this desert highway in Niger — National Route 1. They now call its barren, sandy shoulders home.

All of them have been chased from their villages by Boko Haram, the Islamist militant group that kidnaps and kills indiscriminately in a campaign of violence that has lasted eight years. The New York Times spent weeks documenting the stories of people living along this road, interviewing more than 100 residents clinging to its edges to survive.

National Route 1 does not take them anywhere. It is not a path to a distant sanctuary, a better life or even a refugee camp. It is, quite literally, a road to nowhere. It ends abruptly, connecting to nothing but more desert.

Begun by a Chinese oil company, construction stopped two years ago after attacks by Boko Haram spiked. Its intended destination — oil fields near the border with Chad — is far away, about 80 miles beyond the choppy lip where the pavement suddenly cuts off, like an interrupted thought.

The Chinese are gone. Now, desperation spans the horizon instead: tens of thousands of ragged huts made from millet stalks, scraps of fabric, torn flour bags and sheets of tarp. From the air, they look like scattered piles of hay.

Many have been living here for more than two years.

"Sometimes I think they'll come again, even here," said Atcha Mallam, 13, who has been living by the road for 18 months and still dreams that Boko Haram fighters will find her. "I have nightmares — they're coming to kill me, they're coming to kill me."

In parts of neighboring Nigeria, Boko Haram has suffered big losses. A military offensive has killed and captured fighters, invading their hideouts in the forest. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerians are now going home to their villages — or in some cases, what is left of them.

But along Nigeria's blurry border with Niger, Boko Haram fighters are still raging. More than 200,000 people scattered by the violence have come seeking safety here in the Diffa region alone, with tens of thousands settling along National Route 1, a sleek, paved highway in a part of the country where roads are usually nothing more than skinny scratches in the sand.

There are reasons to stay. Niger's military regularly patrols this paved stretch of highway. Soldiers set up checkpoints and duck behind piles of sandbags with rifle tips pointing outward. So far, Boko Haram has kept its distance.

For the tens of thousands here, living next to the 45 miles of asphalt offers a sense of security and calm.

"We can sleep now," said Fati Fougou, a 40-year-old mother of seven who was chased from three different villages by fighters before settling along the road with her children, "because no one is shooting."

A handful of aid groups help. UNICEF trucks in water. The International Rescue Committee hands out bags of rice, sardine tins and powdered milk. Doctors Without Borders runs small clinics. But formal camps do not exist. All of the displaced here are squatters.

"We were not like this before," said Sambo Tchakaama, standing next to empty water jugs near a giant well that had run dry two months before.

At the edge of the small city of Diffa, a lumpy street blends into smooth asphalt, and the road begins. The first home along the highway, a hut made of gray, rotting millet stalks, belongs to Hadiza Mani, a 60-year-old widow. She moved here a year ago with her five children after Boko Haram gunned down her husband.

As the sun rose one recent morning, her 13-year-old daughter emerged from under a heavy blanket stretched across a mat in the sand under the sky — her bedroom. Her younger sister crawled out of the hut and began chopping wood for a breakfast fire.

"If we live by the road, people will pass by," Mani said. "If anyone wants to give us something, they'll know we're here, at this first spot."

The rush of newcomers has turned tiny specks of roadside villages into growing towns of want, overwhelming ground wells in a place where water is scarce and few crops are hardy enough to endure the brutal heat.

Some brought their herds and flocks when they fled. Cattle, goats, donkeys and chickens compete with people for food and water. A few months ago, a fight over well water ended in death.

Farther north, the Village of Traveling Barbers, or Garin Wanzam in the local language, was settled long before the displaced people arrived. The village chief, Shettima Fougou, and his relatives were the only ones who lived there.

Fougou remembers the moment everything changed: 10 a.m. one Thursday in 2015. Six families on the run from Boko Haram showed up inside his small compound of five mud-brick homes.

"It was not a good situation," said Fougou, a towering 45-year-old with a smoothly shaved head. "I worried Boko Haram would follow them."

But he saw their desperation and decided to welcome them. He offered them food and shelter and hoped for the best.

Then, a few weeks later, Fougou was in a nearby village cutting hair when his phone rang.

"Come home," his cousin begged him.

When Fougou arrived back home, he found bedraggled people everywhere. His tiny village was overrun with the newly displaced. They have not stopped coming since.

Two years ago, his village had 20 people. Now, it has 13,000.

"They come in the morning. They come in the afternoon. They come all night," he said. "It's so hard. Many people come with so many children. But I'm obliged to give them something to eat."

"Our religion told us to take care of strangers," said Fougou. "You never know, it could happen to you."

Generosity abounds along the road. Oxfam International, an aid group, estimates 80 percent of the displaced people in the area around Diffa are being fed and sheltered by local communities, which even in peaceful times are among the continent's poorest.

Many of the people living on National Route 1 arrived nearly empty-handed. A silver-colored pot and a plastic kettle. Tarnished wedding bracelets that recall happier days. Two dresses for a teenage girl who mourned leaving her eight other dresses behind.

By the time Marem Ari Gambo, 25, arrived at the road she did not have shoes. The rubber strap on one of her flimsy yellow flip-flops had popped out after a few hours of walking. Barefoot, she pushed the only belongings she and her four children had — sleeping mats, some clothes — in a wheelbarrow.

But while possessions are sparse along the road, boredom is plentiful. There are few fields to tend, and harvest season is far off. A few bustling markets sell wood, fabric and vegetables — accepting the currencies of both Niger and Nigeria — but many people have no means of buying anything. Aid groups run a handful of activity centers, some with a volleyball net and basketball hoop. But the blazing sun limits the hours of play for those lucky enough to live nearby.

Fewer than half of the 137,000 children estimated to be living in the region are in school. Village schools that existed before the influx are largely inoperable because the government has not paid teachers for months. UNICEF has set up 27 small schools along the road. In one, students from Niger, whose national language is French, are being taught in English.

"Hurry, hurry, let's go home," a chorus of children chanted in French as they streamed out of a tented classroom.

Moussa Kiari, 65, with a gray beard, wiry white eyebrows and failing eyes, sat on the ground in the patch of shade cast by his straw hut. He escaped Boko Haram over a year ago, when fighters swarmed his house in Nigeria and killed six members of his family.

He, his daughter and a few other relatives fled across the border. They hoped to fish in Lake Chad for a few weeks and earn a bit of money from their catch. But the government, concerned about security, closed down the fishing business.

They set out again. Word was spreading that the military patrolled National Route 1. That became their destination. Along the way, Kiari's daughter fell ill and died, leaving behind her 13-year-old son.

Now, the old man and teenager live together, in the last house on the road. The roof of their hut leaks during the rainy season, and sometimes food is scarce, Kiari said, staring at the horizon.

"I just don't have the strength to move again."

Fleeing Boko Haram, thousands cling to a road to nowhere 03/30/17 [Last modified: Thursday, March 30, 2017 9:38pm]
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