Life returns to Lake Chad island despite Boko Haram threat

by Caroline CHAUVET

Bol (Chad) (AFP) - Gaou Moussa stands in front of his family home nestled in the dense vegetation of Chad's Tchoukouli island, where burnt straw and charred wood still litter the ground from a Boko Haram attack three years ago.

"They killed my brother and we fled," he said.

Tchoukouli -- one of hundreds of tiny interconnected islands about an hour's canoe ride from Lake Chad's northern banks -- is coming back to life.

Despite the ongoing threat posed by the Islamist insurgents, fishermen sit mending nets and repaired ones curl in the sun nearby, while farmers guide their cattle into the water and others tend to cornfields in the distance.

All of these are activities that have been absent for more than two years.

Boko Haram has been fighting a bloody insurgency since 2009, seeking to carve out a hardline Islamic caliphate in the northeast of neighbouring Nigeria.

After controlling a region the size of Belgium inside Nigeria by 2014, the Sunni jihadist group was driven back in the last two-and-a-half years to remote areas around Lake Chad, straddling Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

The people of the islands have suffered from Boko Haram's relentless violence. Villages have been pillaged and residents kidnapped and killed.

But the first of the group's envoys came into the village mosques peacefully to preach their version of the Koran, villagers said.

"They would promise us paradise, resources, women," said Mohamed Mboh, the chief of neighbouring Bouguirmi island.

Those who resisted or opposed the movement's message were killed, their throats slit, villagers said.

- 'We hear rumours' -

Island residents, particularly members of the Buduma ethnic group, also found themselves caught between the jihadists and the Chadian army.

"Soldiers came to burn our village after a Boko Haram attack because they mistook us for them," said one 53-year-old woman, her face hollowed by hunger.

"Little by little, other ethnic tribes and the army understood that we were also victims as they picked up Budumas' bodies in the bush," said 60-year-old Mboh, also a member of the tribe.

Faced with increasing jihadist attacks, the Chadian government closed its western border with Nigeria and evacuated its islands -- those that were not already empty.

Chad's army, one of the most battle-hardened in the region, continues to patrol the lake's freshwaters and its northern banks, aided by vigilante civilian groups -- giving residents a measure of safety and reason to return.

"We came back to the village of Bouguirmi seven months ago, because we received news that Boko Haram is no longer there, that the villages are protected by the army," said Mboh.

"But every day we hear rumours that there are Boko Haram members hidden in places."

Mboh, whose village numbers about 500 residents, said he now lives "in peace", though he heard gunshots last month. He could not tell, however, whether or not they came from a battle with jihadists.

- Destroyed crops and canoes -

"About a year ago, I came back to see what I had planted before the Boko Haram attack, but unfortunately hippos had destroyed everything," farmer Mal Kalo said.

The 41-year-old fled Bouguirmi two years ago, spending many hours in a canoe, on foot and in a car to get to Iga, another small island closer to the mainland.

In spite of the continuing threat, he feels that this life, independent and out in the open air, is better than being packed into a refugee camp, where malnutrition distorted children's bellies.

Still, life here remains difficult. The harvests have been destroyed, the canoes are shredded and the livestock emaciated.

The border closure with Nigeria has halted commercial activity, blocking trade with the region's main economic hub.

"Before, we were able to do a small amount of business with Nigeria," Kalo said. "But now we cannot because the border was closed a few years ago by the authorities to fight against Boko Haram attacks."

Many islands remain inaccessible as jihadists continue to launch sporadic attacks from their hideouts dotting the lake, where thick foliage provides cover against military operations.

Earlier this month, Boko Haram attacked fishermen on the Nigerian islands of Duguri and Dabar Wanzam, shooting and hacking their victims, leaving 31 dead.

The fishermen had returned to Nigeria's fishing hub of Baga on the lake's shores days earlier and paddled out to the islands looking for fish, according to witnesses.

The eight-year conflict has left at least 20,000 people dead and displaced 2.6 million, creating one of the world's worst humanitarian catastrophes.