Christmas cheer returns to Nigeria's Boko Haram heartland

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Christmas spirit returns to Boko Haram-devastated region
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Christmas spirit returns to Boko Haram-devastated region
Choir members sing during a christmas carol session at the Solid Rock (RCCG) church in Maiduguri, Nigeria November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
A lady dances during a christmas carol session at the Solid Rock (RCCG) church in Maiduguri, Nigeria November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
A man lifts his hand during a christmas carol session at the Solid Rock (RCCG) church in Maiduguri, Nigeria November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
A lady gives a special performance during a christmas carol session at the Solid Rock (RCCG) church in Maiduguri, Nigeria November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
Members of the congregation dance during a christmas carol session at the Solid Rock (RCCG) church in Maiduguri, Nigeria November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
A christmas carol session is underway at the Solid Rock (RCCG) church in Maiduguri, Nigeria November 30, 2016. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde
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MAIDUGURI, Nigeria Dec 22 (Reuters) - Night markets, carol singers and even Santa Claus hats have returned to northeast Nigeria's Maiduguri, in a sign that the threat from jihadist group Boko Haram has ebbed.

Stalls display vegetables, fruit and fish and people chat over cups of tea. It is a far cry from three years ago, when the traditional food markets were closed by curfews imposed after Boko Haram gunmen mounted attacks on them.

More than 15,000 people have been killed and over two million forced to flee their homes by the Islamist militant group's seven-year-old insurgency, aimed at creating a caliphate under sharia law.

Maiduguri, capital of Borno state, was the city hardest hit. But Boko Haram has been forced to retreat in recent months to its stronghold in the Sambisa forest by Nigeria's army and troops from neighboring countries.

The curfew has been pushed back to 10 p.m., from 6 p.m., enabling night markets to remain open until 9 p.m.

"We have returned home now that peace and security has been restored to continue the business," said Ahmed Dangaskiye, whose motorcycle taxi firm has been boosted by the return of late trading at Gomari market in a southwestern district.

See earlier: Kidnapped girls returned to their families:

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Girls released from Boko Haram reunited with families
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Girls released from Boko Haram reunited with families
ABUJA, NIGERIA - OCTOBER 16: Nigerian girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram, meet with their families after they were released, during a ceremony at a Church in Abuja, Nigeria on October 16, 2016. (Photo by Sodiq Adelakun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ABUJA, NIGERIA - OCTOBER 16: Nigerian girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram, meet with their families after they were released, during a ceremony at a Church in Abuja, Nigeria on October 16, 2016. (Photo by Sodiq Adelakun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ABUJA, NIGERIA - OCTOBER 16: Nigerian girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram, meet with their families after they were released, during a ceremony at a Church in Abuja, Nigeria on October 16, 2016. (Photo by Sodiq Adelakun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ABUJA, NIGERIA - OCTOBER 16: Nigerian girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram, meet with their families after they were released, during a ceremony at a Church in Abuja, Nigeria on October 16, 2016. (Photo by Sodiq Adelakun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ABUJA, NIGERIA - OCTOBER 16: Nigerian girls kidnapped by terrorist group Boko Haram, meet with their families after they were released, during a ceremony at a Church in Abuja, Nigeria on October 16, 2016. (Photo by Sodiq Adelakun/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Some of the 21 freed Chibok girls are received at the Nigerian Vice President office in Abuja on October 13, 2016. Jihadist group Boko Haram has freed 21 of the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped more than two years ago, raising hopes for the release of the others, officials said Thursday. Local sources said their release was part of a prisoner swap with the Nigerian government, but the authorities denied doing a deal with Boko Haram. / AFP / PHILIP OJISUA (Photo credit should read PHILIP OJISUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Some of the 21 freed Chibok girls are received at the Nigerian Vice President office in Abuja on October 13, 2016. Jihadist group Boko Haram has freed 21 of the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped more than two years ago, raising hopes for the release of the others, officials said Thursday. Local sources said their release was part of a prisoner swap with the Nigerian government, but the authorities denied doing a deal with Boko Haram. / AFP / PHILIP OJISUA (Photo credit should read PHILIP OJISUA/AFP/Getty Images)
One of the 21 freed Chibok girls cries while holding her baby as Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo looks on at his office in Abuja on October 13, 2016. Jihadist group Boko Haram has freed 21 of the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped more than two years ago, raising hopes for the release of the others, officials said Thursday. Local sources said their release was part of a prisoner swap with the Nigerian government, but the authorities denied doing a deal with Boko Haram. / AFP / PHILIP OJISUA (Photo credit should read PHILIP OJISUA/AFP/Getty Images)
One of the 21 freed Chibok girls wipes away her tears as Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo tries to comforts her at his office in Abuja on October 13, 2016. Jihadist group Boko Haram has freed 21 of the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped more than two years ago, raising hopes for the release of the others, officials said Thursday. Local sources said their release was part of a prisoner swap with the Nigerian government, but the authorities denied doing a deal with Boko Haram. / AFP / PHILIP OJISUA (Photo credit should read PHILIP OJISUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (R) looks on while his wife Dolapo (C) comforts one of the 21 freed Chibok girls freed today from Boko Haram, at his office in Abuja on October 13, 2016. Jihadist group Boko Haram has freed 21 of the more than 200 Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped more than two years ago, raising hopes for the release of the others, officials said Thursday. Local sources said their release was part of a prisoner swap with the Nigerian government, but the authorities denied doing a deal with Boko Haram. / AFP / PHILIP OJISUA (Photo credit should read PHILIP OJISUA/AFP/Getty Images)
ABUJA, NIGERIA - OCTOBER 13 : Nigeria's Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (L) welcomes some of the freed Chibok school girls at the state House in Abuja, Nigeria on October 13, 2016. Twenty-one of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram more than two years ago were freed on October 13, 2016. (Photo by Pool / Nigeria State House/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ABUJA, NIGERIA - OCTOBER 13 : Nigeria's Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (not seen) and Nigeria's Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed (not seen) welcome some of the freed Chibok school girls at the state House in Abuja, Nigeria on October 13, 2016. Twenty-one of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram more than two years ago were freed on October 13, 2016. (Photo by Pool / Nigeria State House/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ABUJA, NIGERIA - OCTOBER 13 : Nigeria's Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (not seen) and Nigeria's Minister of Information and Culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed (not seen) welcome some of the freed Chibok school girls at the state House in Abuja, Nigeria on October 13, 2016. Twenty-one of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram more than two years ago were freed on October 13, 2016. (Photo by Pool / Nigeria State House/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
ABUJA, NIGERIA - OCTOBER 13 : Nigeria's Vice President Yemi Osinbajo (L) welcomes some of the freed Chibok school girls at the state House in Abuja, Nigeria on October 13, 2016. Twenty-one of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram more than two years ago were freed on October 13, 2016. (Photo by Pool / Nigeria State House/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
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Abdul Jabar, a tea seller pouring hot drinks for clusters of men in Custom market, in the southeast of the city, said that until a few months ago, people did not leave home at night.

"Even by 5 p.m. nobody can come to this area, but now, thank God, peace has come," he said.

Christmas carol singers, some wearing Santa Claus hats, backed by congregations of at least 50 gather to sing hymns in the predominantly Muslim city.

Boko Haram has carried out several deadly attacks on churches in the past. The group still stages suicide bombings in the northeast and in neighboring Niger and Cameroon.

In early December two schoolgirl suicide bombers killed 56 people at a daytime market in Madagali, 150 km (90 miles) from Maiduguri.

A pharmacist in Gomari market was aware of the need to remain vigilant. "We have to search them outside before coming here in case of any suicide bomber," he said.

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