Bosso (Niger) (AFP) - Rotting bodies, looted buildings and a grim silence mark the once bustling town of Bosso in southeastern Niger following one of Boko Haram's deadliest ever attacks in the west African nation.
In the empty, dusty streets, soldiers outnumber the few remaining residents -- including the elderly who were unable to flee the insurgents, and some who have returned briefly to collect their possessions.
"Corpses littered the streets," said Abdelaziz Zembada, a 50-year-old local shopkeeper on a visit to see if it was safe to return for good.
Boko Haram attacked a military post in town on June 3, killing 26 soldiers, including two from neighbouring Nigeria, and a number of civilians as well.
Everywhere, there are traces of people's rush to escape.
A single abandoned sandal rests in the courtyard of a building. Pots, pans and containers are scattered on the ground. Inside one earth-and-straw home there is nothing, save a mattress and broken tea cups.
Behind a sheet of corrugated metal, a rotting goat gives off a putrid odour. A man's unclaimed body decomposes in a local authority building. Witnesses believe there are more undiscovered dead scattered throughout the town.
Boko Haram's seven-year insurgency has left at least 20,000 people dead in Nigeria and made more than 2.6 million homeless in its quest to form a hardline Islamic state.
Extending the attacks to neighbouring countries, the group's ascendancy has prompted a regional military fightback involving troops from Niger, Chad and Cameroon as well as Nigeria.
Zembada, the shopkeeper, said he and his wife managed to whisk three of their children to safety, but a four-year-old daughter was among those killed in the attack.
"When we came back to get her, that's when the shell landed," he said. "My daughter was inside with two of my neighbour's children... She hasn't been buried yet."
During the assault the local military contingent was overrun, its barracks looted and a handful of their armoured vehicles, trucks and cars were torched.
In the charred ruins of their dormitory, only skeletons of beds are still identifiable.
- 'Getting better' -
All the town's public buildings -- gendarme offices, the town hall and an administration centre -- were pillaged.
A local school and health centre, where someone had scrawled "Boko Haram" on a chalkboard, were not spared either.
In addition to what they took from the buildings, the attackers also carted off some 200 tonnes of grain that were supposed to feed needy locals.
Niger's military claim to have regained full control of Bosso, but it refuses to reveal the exact size of its force.
"Soldiers are there. It is a consequential number," said Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum.
"Within a few weeks we will repopulate Bosso and the residents will return to their lives," he said.
For now, many residents are shuttling back and forth between neighbouring towns and Bosso to pick up what is left of their belongings.
"We spent the night of (June) 3 on the roof and ran away on foot in the morning with the whole family," said El Hadj Abba Makani, a father of 10 with two wives, as he loaded all he could into a battered 4x4.
"We are afraid, but if everyone comes back we will too," said the shopkeeper.
Some residents are already home, beginning the struggle to rebuild lives shattered by the attack.
"We're discouraged. We want people to come back," said Souleymane Salissa, a barber.
His home and shop were looted, but he is back and managing to get by with business from the soldiers. In addition to cutting hair he also offers a service to charge mobile phones.
"Things are getting better, even if yesterday we heard gunfire," Salissa said. "(But) if you hear 'Allahu Akbar' (God is greatest), that's when you have to worry."