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In Northeast Nigeria, Displaced Families Celebrate Ramadan's End In Style

Fatima Umaru paints decorative henna on her sister-in-law Bintukawu in preparation for Sallah celebrations. They came to the camp over a year ago, fleeing Boko Haram fighters who had overrun their home in Bama's local government area.
Jide Adeniyi-Jones for NPR
Fatima Umaru paints decorative henna on her sister-in-law Bintukawu in preparation for Sallah celebrations. They came to the camp over a year ago, fleeing Boko Haram fighters who had overrun their home in Bama's local government area.

Around the world, Muslims are marking Eid Al-Fitr, the celebration that ends Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting — including the people of northeastern Nigeria, a region blighted by an eight-year insurgency by the extremist group, Boko Haram.

Despite a recent spate of deadly suicide attacks in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and the regional metropolis, both displaced people driven from their homes by Boko Haram, and the host community are celebrating Eid — or Sallah as it's called in Nigeria.

One displaced people's settlement is teeming with activity this Sunday. At the large compound, about 3,500 people call home structures made out of UN refugee agency-branded tarpaulin stretched over wooden frames.

During Eid, dozens of children were gleefully skipping, blowing balloons, wearing sunglasses, and the girls got their hands, arms and legs painted with intricate henna patterns.

Most of the kids are beautifully dressed in their bespoke colorful Eid (Sallah) finery — African prints and headwraps for the girls and embroidered guinea brocade or prints for the boys.

Watching the activities and wearing a big smile of satisfaction is Alhaji Baba Kura Alkali, a local notable who owns the land the camp is built on. It used to be a mechanics workshop and another one for processing gum arabic, he says. But Alkali decided it was time to pack up and leave when thousands of people, chased from their rural homes by Boko Haram, began arriving in Maiduguri.

"People were suffering. That's why I decided to give them this land to stay," he says.

The landowner says he's excited to see children playing and adults treating his property — now a camp run by the charity Save the Children, assisted by the UN children's fund UNICEF — as their home. Maiduguri is the birthplace of Boko Haram, which first waged a war against government and security targets, but soon began attacking churches, mosques, marketplaces, all while killing Muslim and Christian civilians.

More recently, Boko Haram — which has pledged allegiance to Islamic State — vowed to establish a caliphate. It occupied land until the Nigerian military, backed by a regional force, pushed the group from its safe havens around the Sambisa Forest.

Alkali tells NPR that until it's safe for the displaced people to return from Maiduguri to their own communities, "Insh'Allah," they are welcome to stay.

"I decided to give this out of charity," he says. We have security here. We have no problem. Borno is a home of peace, you know. We thank God for that."

Local commentator, photographer and public health specialist, Fati Abubakar, who posts images of her home state on social media under the hashtag #bitsofborno, says Eid celebrations have been more subdued this year in the Maiduguri area.

"Because of the recurrence of attacks — we've had several attacks recently, so we are very cautious — that's why the Eid is low-key," she says. "Notwithstanding, people, as you can see, are well dressed, very colorful, very beautiful and children are very excited that it's Eid, so it's as vibrant as we know it."

Abubakar says in the past, "Eid would have been bigger than this in the sense that we would have had durbars" — traditional ceremonies organized by the royal family, with drums and traditional groups performing.

"Unfortunately, because of the fear we have, the unpredictability, the insecurity, we're not able to have bands playing or any durbar. Nothing ceremonial. Sallah (Eid) is just about being well dressed visiting your family."

Still, the displaced children are having fun. Abubakar muses "for this day at least, you're colorful, you're beautiful and you're out to play and just be a kid again."

Children in the camp dance in their Sallah finery.
/ Jide Adeniyi-Jones for NPR
Jide Adeniyi-Jones for NPR
Children in the camp dance in their Sallah finery.

Fati Alhaji Modu, mother to five, smiles and greets visitors in English, saying "Happy Sallah, Eid Mubarak" — traditional greetings of peace during the post-Ramadan festivities. She was pregnant with her youngest child, a toddler boy, when she fled to Maiduguri from Bama, in another part of Borno State.

Modu's town was overrun by Boko Haram, and Bama remained occupied by the terror group until it was liberated by the Nigerian army — but residents are still not able to return home for security reasons.

Modu's prayer is to go back to Bama, but she says she prefers to remain in Maiduguri until it's safe to do so.

All around her, children are playing, oblivious perhaps to the stresses and tensions the adults are grappling with. Meanwhile, their families are contemplating life away from this temporary home and wondering when they'll be allowed back to continue where they left off.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton is an award-winning broadcaster from Ghana and is NPR's Africa Correspondent. She describes herself as a "jobbing journalist"—who's often on the hoof, reporting from somewhere.