■ Over 2 million people internally displaced
From TIMOTHY OLANREWAJU, Maiduguri
Rahila pushed aside the dirty, brownish and torn fabric hung on the door of the small room in an uncompleted building located in the sprawling Polo Area of Nigerian northeast city of Maiduguri on this Tuesday in July about mid-day. She then gestured with her hand, inviting the reporter into the room and quickly dashed to a corner of the room to reposition a small bowl placed on the floor to trap the drops of rain dripping through the leaking zinc roof.
“This is what we often experience anytime it is raining,” she said, apparently referring to the leaking roof. The building is surrounded by pool of water due to lack of drainage with inhabitants of the area navigating through the dirty pond to enter their houses. “Sorry this is all we have now,” she said apologetically as she welcomed the reporter.
Rahila is married to Dauda and they have lived in the uncompleted building since December 2014, when they fled to Maiduguri after Boko Haram raided and overran Baga, which is close to Lake Chad and is the second largest semi-urban area of Borno State.
“Boko Haram entered Baga one evening in December 2014, shooting and throwing improvised explosive devices in different directions. I fled into the bush with my family and other residents. Many people couldn’t escape. They were killed by Boko Haram,” Jona said, recalling the tragic attack on the fishing town of Baga as he sat with the reporter on the rough pavement outside the room.
From Baga, Jona and his family meandered through the bushes for days until they landed in Maiduguri, some 190 kilometres away. “You need to see how exhausted we were; looking very dirty, but we kept on moving, believing we would land safely and we got here. We were very lucky because others couldn’t make it to Maiduguri. Some even died on the way and their bodies could not be buried,” he revealed.
With no food to eat or house to stay in and nothing left for his family, Jona said that his only thought was to move into any of the camps established by the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the metropolis. But then, his brother kicked against it.
“My brother insisted that I should not go to the IDP camp so as not to worsen my situation. I tried the camp though but went back few days later to stay with him. I guess he feared we may encounter more problems especially with what we had gone through in the bush trekking from Baga to Monguno and down to Maiduguri,” he said.
Long, lonely night
The experience of most survivors of Boko Haram attacks are usually a mix of survival instinct and luck. “You may run into a wild animal in the night, die of starvation, exhaustion or be killed by the Boko Haram terrorists you’re running away from,” said John Gwama, leader of the IDPs at the camp established by the Christian Association of Nigeria (CAN) in Maiduguri, and who spent a week on the Gwoza hill after an attack on his village late 2014.
For Jona and the over 100 former residents of Baga who escaped the mass slaughter by the Boko Haram in their town, the cold harmattan nights spent in the bushes of Baga were not only lonely but also long. “When you are in danger, the night is usually long and lonely. It would appear as if the day would never break. In the bush, there was nothing to eat or drink. Our only child became sick and my wife was weak too. My younger brother’s son also took ill. The boy died eventually and we left his corpse and moved on,” he said as he lowered his voice. Loud silence followed as he painfully thought about the days of horror in the belly of the hellish forest.
Unlike Jona who found his way to Maiduguri within three days of his escape from Boko Haram’s guns, Musa John’s escape was more excruciating. He was trapped on the hilltop for four months after fleeing the insurgents’ onslaught on his remote Ngoshe community in the Gwoza Local Government Area, located on the Nigeria-Cameroon border, southeast of Maiduguri. His thriving farming business was truncated by rampaging insurgents who leveled his town, mid-June 2014, in three hours, forcing him and others to flee.
“The attack on my town was brutal. The insurgents slit the throats of many including my father. We fled to the top of the hill and were there from June till September. By late September, we summoned courage to come down from the mountain and fled to Cameroon, and from there found our way back to Yola, Adamawa State,” John recalled.
In Yola, Musa had high expectation that he could get succour at the IDP camp, but it turned out otherwise. “The situation at the IDP camp wasn’t what I had anticipated. Food was inadequate and the quality was bad. People were many and I feared the situation could affect my child because there could be outbreak of disease. I stayed at the camp for about two weeks and realized there was no help forthcoming. So I opted to head for Maiduguri to stay with my friend before moving to a small place,” he explained.
During the next few months that followed, Musa worked in a sandcrete factory and was able to save N15,000 to rent a one-room apartment in the outskirts of the city. “I saw one uncompleted building without roof. I approached the owner and he allowed me to stay there. I used the money I saved from working in the block factory to purchase eight sheets of corrugated zinc. A benevolent person also gave me additional sheets of zinc with which I made a roof for the room,” he said.
The day of blood
Most victims of the Boko Haram bloodletting hardly want to recount the brutal attacks on their homes. To them, recalling the gruesome killing of their loved ones in their presence crudely remind them of their tragedies. The experience was so traumatic that they don’t want to remember or even narrate it. “It’s a story I don’t like to tell,” Halima, whose husband was killed by Boko Haram in Bama, in late August 2014, stated. “No!” she screamed and then burst into tears. “May Allah judge them,” she said, thrusting her right arm into the air, cursing the killer of her husband.
On that fateful day, Halima had barely finished preparing breakfast for her family when two young men with AK 47 assault rifles entered the compound from the back. A gunshot fired by one of them announced the beginning of the day of blood.
“They shoved me aside with my baby strapped to my back and forced their way into the main house. They pulled up my husband and our son from the praying mat and brought them to where I laid at the backyard. They gave a gun to my son, who was about 13 years old, and asked him to shoot his father but he refused. So they hit him on the head and blood gushed out. I was begging them, but they threatened to kill me. I even asked them to kill me but they didn’t listen. They called my son a coward and said that he failed their test. They said he could not do their work; so they shot him and my husband right in my presence,” Halima recounted, all the while sobbing. Each time she recalls the video of what happened that day, as recorded by the camera of her mind, she is saddened afresh. “Sometimes I wonder, why is God so patient with evil doers?” Halima asked rhetorically.
The attack on the city did not last more than three hours, but it left death, sorrow and anguish in its wake. “It was a day of blood,” said Mohammad Goni, a Maiduguri-based journalist. Blood and corpses were everywhere while smoke from burning houses billowed into the sky from different parts of the town, disclosed Mr Sunday Obadofin, one of the survivors of the attack. The survivors trekked through the bush, drenched by rain, to Konduga, located about 35 kilometres away. Eventually, they arrived in Maiduguri three days later to join other IDPs in Maiduguri.
City of succour
Early in September 2015, when Halima got to the Dalori camp in Maiduguri, it was still teeming with over 20,000 IDPs from various communities in the central part of the state displaced by Boko Haram. The IDPs were going through screening by emergency and relief workers at the new IDPs camp, the 14th set up in the capital. Looking unkempt and famished, Halima carrying her sick one-year-old boy, approached a group of people at the gate of the expansive camp for food and water. As at that time, she was still unaware of the whereabouts of her two other sons in boarding school. Loaves of bread and water delivered by the state government were later served to the refugees, and thereafter the new arrivals were ushered into various buildings within the camp to begin a new life in a new place.
“In the beginning, we were served mostly rice and spaghetti, three times a day. Gradually the number of meals per day was reduced to two. Then the quality of the food dwindled and strange things began to happen at the camp,” she said, adding that the prevalence of health challenges increased. Even more troubling was the incidence of drug abuse and sexual promiscuity among the teenage IDPs and other adults in the camp. All these combined to make her leave the camp.
Recalling how good fortune took her away from the camp, she said: “I went out one day to buy some things I needed after a woman gave me N2, 000. I was lucky to meet a relation of my mother who recognized me and took me to his place. After visiting him, I returned to the camp. But one week later, he came to the camp and moved me out to his place, which is where I have been living since then.”
For 58-year-old Mbwieisu, a widow, her journey through the forest of Damboa in mid-July 2014 is a story of grit and stubborn determination in the quest to reach a safe haven in Maiduguri. After escaping from the insurgents, she trekked through swamps and bush paths before she eventually got to Biu, some 100 kilometres away.
“I ran into a man on a motorbike who offered to assist me. But unknown to me he was a Boko Haram. He took me to a place where there were six other insurgents. They wanted to rape me but somehow a quarrel broke out among them, forcing their commander to intervene. They were summoned for an attack and I think they forgot I was there. I used the opportunity to escape.”
In Biu, she lived with a family and then returned to Damboa three months later only to discover that her house was in ruins. She moved to the IDP camp where she became sick. “I was very sick. I lost my husband to Boko Haram in Mubi before the Damboa attack. Thank God my children were not with us. The government relocated me to Maiduguri and got another place for me. I often remember my ugly experience each time I see IDPs in the city. Now God is comforting me and that’s why I call myself Mbwieisu.” The name means comfort in her Bura language.
Back to square one
The victims of the six-year insurgency are not only those who lost their relations. Over two million people are internally displaced in Nigeria as a result of the Boko Haram insurgency. Children and their families have been wrenched by brutal conflict from their homes and communities and deprived of their livelihoods, said Doune Porter, the UNICEF Chief Communications Officer in Nigeria. But then, only nine per cent of the IDPs are living in camps. The other 91 per cent of the displaced are living with extended families and friends in host communities.
“The entire area was already deprived, with high levels of malnutrition and limited access to health, education and safe water supplies even before the conflict. The massive influx of internally displaced persons has put an enormous burden on an already fragile area,” she told Sunday Sun, explaining that most of the displaced persons depend largely on their hosts (families, relations and friends) for basic needs of feeding, clothing and medicals. Sadly, the violence has equally done incalculable damage to the economy of the state as hundreds of business activities and government offices have been shut down following increasing attacks on private and public institutions, Borno State Governor Kashim Shettima said, painting a grim picture of the dire situation in the northeast.
Among those taking refuge with their relations in the capital is 35-year-old Hamman Mohammed. His thriving cotton business was destroyed when Boko Haram attacked Gwoza, late September 2014. On that day, he was standing in front of a government building when he heard the sound of machine guns. He dived into the bush nearby and began trekking with no clue as to where he was going or where the path would lead him to; all that was on his mind was to get as far away as possible from the sound of the gunfire.
“It was impossible for me to go back home to rescue my wife and four children. The situation was already tense and the only thing I could do at that time was to flee into the bush,” he recalled. After two days of hiding in the upper branches of a tree in the hilly side of the town, Mohammed opted to venture into a more hazardous journey to Uba and later to Madagali, in the neigbouring Adamawa State. “I was doing well in the cotton business, working for my master and occasionally travelling to Cameroon until Boko Haram came. I trekked some distance to get to Uba and then Madagali where luckily, I met my wife and four children. But my brother, Amadu, was killed while Mohammed Maru, another brother is missing.”
With no means of livelihood to sustain his family in Madagali, which was also threatened back then by the insurgents, Mohammed fled to Maiduguri and found refuge at the IDP camp at the Arabic College within the metropolis. Weeks passed and the reality at the camp became daunting: inadequate food to cater for the increasing number of IDPs, shortage of water and health problems. “Women were even contributing N10 each to buy diesel to power the generator to pump water. It was as bad as that because people kept on trooping to the camp. Rice was served without meat or condiments. Sometimes we didn’t even get food because there was no firewood to cook,” Mohammed said.
With all these, Mohammed decided to leave the camp with his family and relocated to a small apartment provided by his friend. “I live on handouts from friends; I’m still searching for work,” he said.
Distrust for government
Most victims are unsure of government’s ability to fulfill its promises to address some of their basic challenges at the camps. The discovery of over 1000 malnourished persons at the camp further heightened peoples’ distrust for the government. Many, like Mohammed and Musa, said they could swear that the representatives of the government speak from both sides of the mouth. “I want the government to rebuild our homes rather than taking us to another IDP camp in our town only for us to suffer again,” Mohammed said. That remark was prompted by reports that the government wanted to relocate the IDPs to their communities. “I don’t think government will do anything for me,” Musa quipped, adding, “all I want is rebuilding of our community.” For Jona, his basic need was food because “things are difficult.”
The Borno State Government has commenced rebuilding of liberated communities. So far, 40 structures including police station, local government secretariat and courts, among others, have been completed. But UNICEF warns government to respect the will of the displaced persons to be resettled. The National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) recently delivered some food items to the IDPs. The Northeast Zonal Coordinator of the agency, Mohammed Kanar disclosed that the agency had enough food in store and urged the IDPs to be patient. The United Nations Humanitarian coordinator for Nigeria, Mohammed Munir Safieldin noted that children were most affected by the violence in the northeast. A recent survey conducted through the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), showed that children constitute the greater number of the 1.5 million IDPs in Borno State alone.
“Children are bearing the brunt of the conflict and they account for more than half of the people displaced. Children have been killed and injured. Thousands are thought to have been either abducted or held by Boko Haram in occupied areas. Girls have been raped and forced into so-called marriages; boys have been forced to become Boko Haram combatants. Both boys and girls, but mostly girls, have been brainwashed and at times forcefully used as “suicide” bombers. Even the children that escaped or who were liberated now face long term trauma. Many of them are still viewed with suspicion, distrust and even hostility by their communities on their return, because they are believed to have been influenced by Boko Haram.”
Safieldin said the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Program (WFP) were providing food aid, cash assistance, and agricultural inputs to IDPs and host communities as part of the UN intervention in the crisis ravaged northeast. “The aim is to make these people self-sufficient and economically active.”
For Mohammed, who is yet to recover from the loss of two younger brothers, no amount of resettlement can be worthwhile except government ensures Boko Haram insurgency or similar crisis is not allowed to take a root in the country again. “The resettlement will be effective when government succeeds in completely ending Boko Haram or any other similar group. The prompt rehabilitation of victims can also help remove the sad memories from our mind.”