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Hunger gnaws at host families in Boko Haram-hit northeast Nigeria

By Henry Wilkins

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Boko Haram militants stormed Kaka Mohammed's hometown of Bama in northeast Nigeria two years ago and kidnapped one of her sons, she escaped with her disabled daughter carried in a wheelbarrow and her other two children fleeing on foot.

Mohammed and her children, among the 1.7 million Nigerians uprooted by Boko Haram, were taken in by a family in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, the jihadists' former stronghold.

But both the displaced and host families are going hungry amid a deepening food crisis and the threat of imminent famine.

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"As soon as there is peace I want to return home - I don't want to live here any more," said 30-year-old Mohammed, who lives with a woman named Zana Malambanwe and her family.

"The children are suffering, there is no food. They have been complaining bitterly," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Some 4.4 million people like Mohammed are going hungry across northeast Nigeria, and two million need food aid urgently, according to the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP).

"We are living in one room. It is really not easy," said Malambanwe, also 30, who has hosted the displaced family in her home for over a year. "If we get food, we eat together, but sometimes we only eat one meal a day, of cassava flour."

Around 400,000 children are at risk from famine in the states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe, 75,000 of whom could die from hunger within months, said the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF).

Nigeria said last week that aid agencies, such as the United Nations, were exaggerating hunger levels to get more money from international donors. However, the government said in November that the country could face famine by January.

Boko Haram militants have killed about 15,000 people and displaced 2.4 million across Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria during a seven-year campaign to create an Islamist caliphate.

Nigeria's army has pushed the Islamist group back to its base in Sambisa forest in the past few months but the militants still stage suicide bombings. Two girl bombers killed at least three people and wounded 17 at a market on Sunday.

TENSIONS RISING

Almost four in five of the 1.4 million displaced Nigerians in Borno state are living in local communities, with the rest residing in temporary camps, according to the United Nations.

Yet tensions are rising in many homes as food runs short.

"The biggest problem is food," said 22-year-old Fatima Omar, a wife and mother-of-five who hosts a family in her house.

"My husband is a mechanic and if there is a car to repair then he gets money... If we get money we will divide it between the two families. If not, we go hungry," Omar added.

More than 100,000 people, including Omar and Malambanwe, receive money from WFP through a system which delivers credit to mobile phones that can be exchanged for food at markets. But not everyone is covered by the credit scheme.

"We had a cash distribution from WFP, but [Mohammed and her family] has not received anything," Malambanwe said.

People are leaving host families and moving to camps as food becomes increasingly scarce, the European Commission's humanitarian arm (ECHO) said earlier this year.

Aid agencies say they are restricted by a lack of funding. The United Nations' $484 million appeal for 2016 has only been half funded, the U.N.'s Financial Tracking Service shows.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) earlier this month doubled its humanitarian funding appeal for northeast Nigeria to $1 billion in 2017 in a bid to reach some 7 million people affected by Boko Haram.

"Northeast Nigeria is a highly visible crisis within the humanitarian community, but not perhaps getting a great level of international media attention," said U.N. official Abdi Farah.

"There are still big funding gaps in various sectors, including food security," Farah added.

(Reporting By Henry Wilkins, Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)