Not a single car remains in the town of Dikwa in northeast Nigeria and there’s no way to communicate to the outside world, as all the telephone lines have been blown up.
But it is here that humanitarian groups are trying to bring aid to some 57,000 people forced out of their homes by Boko Haram Islamists, whose insurgency has devastated the remote region since 2009.
“On average, 200 to 300 people arrive per day,” one soldier posted in the town said. “They left their village because there’s no protection, no food there, and they can’t farm.”
Abubakar Gambo Adam, a consultant in a clinic run by Unicef, said the new arrivals are often in a bad way. Some are severely dehydrated, others have trauma injuries or gunshots.
Many have walked for three or four days to get to Dikwa, he added.
– ‘A lot has changed’ –
In a tent outside the field hospital, Maimuna Alhazi Kalo waited her turn with about 20 other young mothers, her one-year-old son in her arms.
He has already been on an emergency feeding programme for seven months of his short life, but still weighs little more than a newborn.
But Gambo says the boy is over the worst because he has received high-energy nutrition supplements and because sanitary conditions for the displaced have improved.
“Since I arrived in Dikwa in July 2016, a lot has changed,” he told AFP.
“We were located in a camp outside the town, we couldn’t enter the city. There were so many hygienic problems, diarrhoea, malaria. We admitted at least 10 severely malnourished children every day.”
One senior Nigerian government official involved in the relief effort described the crowds of hungry and desperate people at Dikwa last year as “biblical”.
Aid agencies have gradually been reaching liberated towns since last April, and it is only then that the scale of the humanitarian crisis has become apparent.
In July, the UN’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, Toby Lanzer, told AFP that the food situation in Dikwa, Monguno and other towns was comparable to the worst crises in Darfur and South Sudan.
Reports emerged of multiple deaths from severe acute malnutrition; dire warnings were issued about what would happen if nothing was done.
From Bama, Monguno and Dikwa to Gwoza, Rann and Damboa, international NGOs and national bodies began sending food and medicine for tens of thousands of people as soon as the army made the towns safe.
In the warehouses of the World Food Programme, 10,700 tonnes of rice, beans, sugar and corn lies waiting to be distributed across Borno State for some 1.3 million people.
That is already 350 percent more than five months ago, and the figure should soon reach two million.
– The cost of security –
At a donors conference in Norway’s capital, Oslo, on Thursday and Friday, the UN will ask for financial aid totalling $1 billion for Nigeria and its neighbours Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
The enormous sum reflects the huge logistical challenges.
For security reasons, no team can stay in Dikwa for more than a day, two in case of emergency. Travel from the Borno state capital, Maiduguri, is exclusively by helicopter as the roads remain too dangerous.
Humanitarian organisations contracted by other, bigger NGOs to work in Dikwa are effectively cut off between visits of their partners.
Because of the lack of cars, everyone depends on the army to get around the town and even to bring in the 50 trucks of food a month for the displaced.
But without proper supervision, the food rations often fail to reach everyone.
“As humanitarians we have to go against a lot of basic principles by working here,” one worker told AFP.
“But we simply don’t have the choice at the moment. The situation is too critical.”
– Every little helps –
In one of Dikwa’s overcrowded camps, Amina Mohammed, contracted to work by the International Organization for Migration, does her best to get the message across about sanitation.
“I tell them to keep a clean place, to wash themselves, but I know they haven’t seen soap for month. There is not even enough water to drink,” she said.
Hundreds of children, most of them in dirty clothes with holes, are kept entertained as she sings a rhyme, teaching them to “Kill, kill mosquitoes!”
She slaps herself comically in the arm and the children fall about laughing.
“We try to achieve a bit with what we have,” she said with a smile.
In Dikwa, that’s not much.