By Franceska Megaloudi
For thousands of people displaced by Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, the road back to self-sufficiency appears to be extremely challenging.
An estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced in the region since 2009, when the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram launched military operations to overthrow the Nigerian government and create an Islamic state in the country’s northeast. Since then 45,000 people have been abducted, more than 20,000 have been killed and 7.5 million people need humanitarian aid to survive.
The conflict has spread to neighboring Chad, Cameron and Niger creating a regional crisis in the broader Lake Chad Basin.
The northeastern Nigerian states of Adamawa, Yobe, Gombe and Borno have been the most affected states with Borno state hosting eighty per cent of the displaced people. More than one million have sought refuge in Maiduguri, the state capital, living with friends and relatives, or renting overcrowded houses.
The influx of displaced people has overstretched the already limited housing capacity of host communities. Only eight percent live in camps for internally displaced people. In the government-run camps families are separated, movement outside the camps is restricted and people can remain stranded there for many months if not years.
The majority of the people have had horrifying experiences. When Boko Haram attacked their villages they saw their friends and relatives killed or abducted, their clinics and schools looted, their crops destroyed, and their houses burnt to the ground. But they have lost more than just their homes and livelihoods. They have lost the sense of belonging to a community, their roots and along with that they have lost a part of their personal history.
“With the ongoing attacks, especially in Borno, it is difficult to assist with livelihood strategies, or to implement durable solutions to affected populations”, says Kasper Engborg, the United Nation’s OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) in Nigeria. “The trail of destruction left by Boko Haram means that the displaced people have little access to basic services. Main roads are the targets of frequent attacks, obstructing markets, and supply and trade routes” he added.
In one government camp, Gobio, located outside Maiduguri, some 8000 people have escaped the horrors of Boko Haram. The conditions are harsh. They all share 82 latrines and there is only one clinic with ten health workers to deal with physical and emotional trauma. The majority of the people come from the Kukalor LGA (local government area) and have been in the camp for more than a year. More than fifty percent are children under 15 but they do not attend school. People try to cope as best they can but they are all dependent on government and NGOs to provide them food and daily items.
The prospects of rebuilding their lives still seem far away.
In the middle of the camp, a group of men gather around a small portable radio, hoping to hear news from their loved ones that got lost during the attacks.
Most of them are fishermen that used to make a living by fishing in Lake Chad.
The lake has always been a vital resource for the region and a major trading crossroad. More than 20 million people in the region depend on its waters and wetlands for fishing, hunting, farming and grazing.
But the lake is drying fast. Climate change, intense irrigation and over fishing have caused the lake to shrink by 95% between 1963 and 1998 turning waterfront cities into desert. However local fishermen continued to cross borders for fishing and trade although the resources were depleting fast. The intensification of the Boko Haram came to complete the disaster that has started with the environmental changes. People had to flee, abandoning their livelihoods and their way of living. Initially, most followed the fishing routes and fled to Chad and Niger in the areas around the lake where they continued surviving on fishing and farming the wetlands.
It is estimated that from the 187 thousand Nigerian refugees that fled in neighboring countries, 105 thousand have sought refuge in Niger and some 40,000 in Chad.
Their plight did not end there. Boko Haram targeted the communities around Lake Chad causing further displacement and mayhem. In May 2015, the insurgents attacked fishermen on an island in Lake Chad in Niger prompting the authorities to deport some 4000 people back to Nigeria.
Many were scattered around the communities, but the most vulnerable, and those who had no relatives or financial means had no other choice than going to the overcrowded government run camps like Gobio in Borno.
Again the nightmare was not over.
People in the camps were initially given a daily pass once a week that allowed them to leave the camp for a few hours. This could help them generate some income and overcome the feeling of isolation and the trauma of camp life. Some would go farm the land but the majority of the men would go fishing in the surrounding areas and return before dusk.
Aliyu Abubakar, a fisherman that had fled to Niger and was brought to Gobio camp, used to pass his time by going fishing with two friends and his son in a lake near Maiduguri.
“It helped me not to think of my life in the camp or my pains. The first time I was able to go out and fish again, I felt that God hadn’t forgotten me”.
But Boko Haram insurgents attacked them while fishing; they killed one of Abubakar’s friends and his son.
Abubakar had again to run for his life reliving the painful memories that displaced him in the first place.
“Following several security incidences that took place we had to stop distributing passes” says Aminu Ambursa, head staff of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) in Gobio camp. Since then security has been reinforced and people cannot leave the camp before we fully investigate the incidents”.
This has deteriorated living conditions as many people have lost their only source of income.
In an effort to return to a sense of normality, many displaced people had set up small businesses inside the camps. On the northern edge of Gobio camp, men of all ages wait behind kiosks made from slabs of wood and pieces of zinc. Plastic sheets, some bearing the logo of international organizations, cover the improvised kiosks that sell eggs, sugar, bags of coal, rice and condensed milk. There is chewing gum and chips, white bread, black tea and pasta. Barefoot children fancy the colorful candies hanging from the wooden frames and young, veiled women examine the goods, negotiating prices and quantities.
Kaki Malam, a 45-year-old man from Ngala and father of three used to be a fisherman in his native land. After the Boko Haram attacks, he fled to Niger with his family where he continued fishing. But Niger authorities deported him back to Borno last May. With his savings, he opened up a kiosk selling eggs, sugar, and packs of white bread. In the good days he could make up to 2000 naira a day.
Muhammad, a 45-year-old kiosk owner, says that he had invested all of his savings to open his small business in the camp. He had startup capital of 13,000 naira that allowed him to stock his kiosk with rice, eggs, noodles, sugar and AA batteries. He has eight children living in the camp with his two wives. He does not live with them because the camp policy forbids men and women from living under the same roof, even if they are married.
“In my village I used to farm corn, beans and groundnuts, but after they [Boko Haram] attacked us we had to leave and I lost all my crops and land. Now I am a businessman” he says. But his earnings have dropped significantly as people are not allowed to leave the camps anymore and are running out of money. Some even consider to abandon their kiosks.
Experts say that the daily passes and small business give to the displaced men a sense of returning to what used to be a normal life. It helps ease the trauma and regain self-confidence. Psychosocial support is an urgent priority not only for the displaced women but also for the men. “The needs in the camps are enormous. People are traumatized, they are losing hope, and it takes time for them to talk openly about it”, says Musa Baba of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA that provides psycho-social support and mental health counseling to displaced people in the camps.
Although UNFPA interventions target mainly women and young girls, the number of men that seek psycho-social support has increased significantly over the recent months.
“We see men that have lost their memory or are battling with depression because of the gruesome treatment they have had in the hands of BH. But it is difficult for them to talk about it. We hope that with the scale up of UNFPA interventions and with government support more men will come out to talk about it and discuss their stories”, Baba says.