The war the world forgot: Nigeria’s displaced contemplate returning home
Attacks and kidnappings continue, leaving people who fled their homes with a hard choice
Modu and her baby Fatima in the NYSC camp in Maiduguri, Borno State. Photograph: Sally Hayden
A child plays between shelters in a host community in Maiduguri. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Women stand between shelters at Maiduguri’s Bakasi government camp. Photograph: Sally Hayden
The market in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital which is steadily becoming more secure. Photograph: Sally Hayden
Kolo Modu (30) left her home six months ago. Her baby girl Fatima – chubby, cute, and constantly squirming – cries on her lap as she speaks.
Fatima had a twin who died two days after being born, right as the family’s village was being attacked by Islamic militants Boko Haram. In her mother’s mind, the events are inextricably linked.
Modu is from Konduga, less than 35km from Borno State’s capital Maiduguri, in Nigeria’s northeast. Her neighbours already knew they were a target – Konduga’s inhabitants were ready to leave when Boko Haram began its assault.
Grabbing a minimal amount of prepacked belongings, the villagers fled to another town, Moulori, but there they were ambushed. Finding themselves surrounded, they stayed captive for three months, starvation taking hold as food supplies dwindled. Then the Nigerian army launched a counterattack. Taking advantage of the open fire between the insurgents and the military, neither of whom are famed for their care of civilians, the villagers fled again.
Modu and her surviving child have been in Maiduguri’s National Youth Service Corps government camp for nearly two months now.
Their arrival came just as the authorities were planning to clear the government camps, which are largely located in former federal schools. Modu wonders will she soon be sent back to her village.
Nigeria’s government and military is declaring victory over Boko Haram, but in the country’s northeast – a region that was already deprived – the reverberations of the seven-year insurgency will be felt for generations.
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Of the two million displaced in Nigeria, just 8 per cent are being cared for by the authorities; others find shelter in half-finished building sites, church grounds, or have homes built out of straw, plastic sheets, or – for those with funds – bricks crafted from mud.
Now the question is when they will be ordered to go back home: since a major offensive on Boko Haram last year resulted in swathes of territory being recaptured, the government has been keen to return the displaced to rural areas. However, international NGOs operating in the region are refusing to relocate with the civilians, noting that attacks and kidnappings continue, and claiming the security information provided by the military cannot always be trusted.
“I really have my doubts about how good the military situation is,” said Emmanuel Ogebe, a Nigerian international human rights lawyer living in the US, who is involved in organising emergency aid for the northeast.
“We’ve heard reports of IDPs [internally displaced people] who went back to their villages because of [government] propaganda and were attacked again. So I think it’s important that the public learn about the true extent of the successes.”
For many, Ogebe said, this is a choice between the frying pan and the fire. Government-released figures indicated 450 children had died of malnutrition in camps in Borno last year alone.
“You do have parents who are thinking ‘should I stay here and watch my kids die, or go back to my farm and try to salvage something?’ ” he said.
Even those working in international relief are not sure what information to trust; each morning rumours are noted and carefully evaluated. “The government don’t tell us about attacks with high fatalities because they don’t want to scare us,” said one Yola resident and NGO worker, who asked to remain anonymous.
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In March last year, Boko Haram pledged allegiance to Islamic State, also known as Isis, renaming itself “Islamic State’s Province in West Africa”.
Part of the reason the government is trying to clear camps is because a large proportion of them are schools, which were intended to be only temporarily repurposed as emergency accommodation.
The extended nature of the conflict means many of the city’s children have been out of education for two years now, a deprivation analysts say could increase the chances of conflict again in the future.
Meanwhile, the rainy season has begun, making this time particularly painful for the displaced, who are separated from their land, crops and livelihoods.
Maibukar Abulam (40) was a farmer in Konduga, accustomed to long, hot and laborious days growing rice, maize, and beans. In Maiduguri’s Sulemri host community he’s less active.
“Here we’re just sitting in the shade doing nothing,” he says, looking up listlessly from a mat under a tree.
Thousands of the displaced vacating the federal schools within Borno are being taken to Maiduguri’s Bakasi government camp, based around houses that were being built for civil servants when the crisis began to escalate. Now four or five families cram into each cement shell, some rooms holding several adults and as many as seven children.
They are the lucky ones – the newer arrivals are being housed in tents without floor covers. As the rainy season began, water streamed through their shelters, wetting their belongings. Inside some of the tents women lie curled up, lethargic, rarely moving. “My family are sick,” one man said, gesturing towards them. “They need to just lie there.”
Movement from the camp is restricted: residents must get a permit to leave.
Authorities across the northeast are also very wary of journalists. Entry to the Malkohi government camp in Adamawa State was barred to me, the only evidence of its inhabitants coming from a whiteboard in the schoolroom reception, which displayed a list of those housed inside: 1,262 people including 101 widows, 31 pregnant women, 129 “lactating” mothers and two unaccompanied minors.
Even in Maiduguri, the atmosphere oscillates between bustling and very tense. In April, the city’s football team the El Kanemi Warriors played their first home game in two years – a celebrated symbol of improvement. However, the most recent suicide bombing in the city took place only last month, when two were killed at the entrance to a government building.
Security is tight, with an enforced curfew of 9pm, though this is certainly better than the 24-hour lockdown that was in place for a while last year.
Military patrol the streets at night. When there’s a loud noise, residents will hurriedly question each other, though few can answer. Was that a bomb? Was it a gun being fired? Or just a tire compressing air against the road?