Caught in crisis: Voices from north-east Nigeria

May 18, 2021

Text and photos by Adedeji Ademigbuji, OCHA Nigeria

Bakasi camp for people displaced by conflict is the biggest camp in north-east Nigeria.

The decade-long conflict in north-east Nigeria continues to take its toll. Growing food insecurity, shrinking humanitarian access and overcrowded camps are just some of the life-threatening consequences that women, men and children are forced to deal with every day.

Camp-life reality

Yazari in a classroom that serves as a cramped bedroom at the NYSC IDP camp, Maiduguri, Borno.

If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then those of Yazari Modu have much to tell. She is one of several thousand people living in overcrowded camps across Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states — the areas most affected by the crisis in north-east Nigeria.

“We stay in a classroom where nine families are cramped in a tiny space. There are some families of four children living in the classroom and others with six children,” said Yazari, a 66-year-old mother of 12.

Yazari resides in one of the most congested camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Borno State, the epicentre of the conflict. Her story is not unique; it represents the stark reality for many IDPs caught in crisis.

Due to the rapidly deteriorating security situation in north-east Nigeria, more families are fleeing their homes to survive. Often, they come to these camps to seek refuge, but find that living in this environment presents its own set of challenges.

Bedrooms become classrooms

At the NYSC IDP camp some classrooms also serve as bedrooms.

Yazari said: “There is no privacy here. Every morning we get dressed and leave the classroom — where we stay and sleep — to allow children to attend their classes. We spend the day under the trees, regardless of the weather, even when it rains.”

The mother of 12 fled her hometown in Bama, a local government area (LGA), after it was attacked in 2015 by non-State armed groups (NSAGs). She was abducted and sentenced to die by fire at the hands of non-State actors whose reign of terror has displaced millions of people.

In every village that non-State actors attack and destroy, they forcibly recruit men and boys to join their cause, and they abduct women and girls from the community.

The non-State actors captured Yazari and threatened her until she told them where her husband was. They also demanded to know the whereabouts of the other men in her village.

Yazari and her children outside the classroom.

Fortunately, one of Yazari’s neighbours, a 90-year-old Muslim man, pleaded with the captors to let her go. Thanks to his heroism, Yazari later escaped with her children. They travelled for four days across mountainous and rough terrain until they reached Maiduguri, where they currently live in an IDP camp.

Yazari left behind a big family compound with a house in which each person had their own room, and a backyard farm where chickens roamed free. But that life is now a distant memory. Today, she and her family struggle to survive in an overcrowded environment with no privacy and little to no access to essential services.

Space crunch

Overcrowding in camps is increasingly becoming an issue due to large groups of people fleeing areas recently attacked by NSAGs.

“Overcrowding takes away the dignity of displaced people who have been forced to flee their homes,” says Doreen Chinwem Aninyei, a Protection Associate from UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.

“Women, girls and boys are sometimes forced to resort to negative coping mechanisms such as begging or survival sex in an environment with limited livelihood opportunities,” she continues.

But more worrying to UNHCR is the lack of space, which prevents physical distancing and increases the risk of the spread of communicable diseases such as COVID-19, measles and cholera. It also increases the risk of fire hazards in camps due to limited distance between cooking points.

“We receive regular reports of disputes at water points and inadequate toilets and bathrooms for the number of people living in the camps,” adds Doreen.

A voice for people with disabilities

Halima hopes for a better life for people with disabilities at IDP camps.

Living conditions in IDP camps are even more challenging for people with disabilities. Halima, a 27-year-old mother of six, suffers from a disability that left her unable to walk. She sits on what looks like a bicycle but is actually a wheelchair — her only means of getting around. Her 10-year-old daughter, Falmata, accompanied her for this interview.

Halima explains: “When help is being distributed in the camp, I always get pushed away since I am physically unable to stand in a queue. People with disabilities face even more challenges, as I do. We can’t fight for our provisions. I have heard about women with disabilities being sexually assaulted but thankfully have not lived this experience myself.”

Years ago, Halima and her family fled Marte, a village near Lake Chad, at night. They have been living in this camp for several years now.

An estimated 27 per cent of the displaced population are disabled. Halima formed a group with others like her in the camp, as she feels that people with disabilities suffer more than others, especially because they are unable to access special services that cater to their needs.

Violence against women

Hajiya is concerned about the incidence of violence against women in the camps.

Hajiya Mariam, a 48-year-old mother of 12, was displaced in 2015 from Baga, a fishing community in Borno close to Lake Chad. She said the hardships women face in the camps is exacerbated by domestic violence related to hunger and drug abuse.

“Some men beat their wives because of hunger,” Hajiya explains. “We have seen a situation where a man beat his wife because he could not provide for her basic needs like food and clothing. There are also times when a man in the camp becomes addicted to drugs and alcohol and unleashes violence against his wife.”

Hajiya lost her husband, who was captured and killed by NSAGs while trying to flee to Monguno, a transit village en route to Maiduguri. Hajiya now raises her children alone.

Gender-based violence (GBV) affecting women and girls is one of the most serious protection issues that aid workers are dealing with in the camps.

Hajiya in her space at the camp.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Nigeria, gender norms also continue to put women and girls in an unequal position and expose them to different forms of GBV.

“Women and girls are more vulnerable to the adverse outcomes of the pandemic,” said Iga Rebolledo, a mental health and psychosocial support Programme Manager with IOM in Nigeria. “There is an urgent need to improve the response towards a systemic and holistic approach that addresses stigma and discrimination and enhances human development and equality.”

A plea for help

Abbah Abdullai needs support to feed the 18 children under his care.

Faced with these problems, IDPs are calling for more help and support. Abbah Abdullai is a father of 18, including 8 orphans. He is concerned about the overall situation of the camps and the impact of the protracted conflict on his children.

“A camp is supposed to be a temporary place to live, but the conflict is still ongoing with no signs of stopping,” said Abbah. “Right now, our biggest issue is not having enough latrines. There are too many people but not enough water and sanitation services. Also, the number of families per room is too high. It is really tough, but the Government and some humanitarian actors are trying their best. I wish more could be done.”

Abbah also shared his apprehension that “accessing food is a big problem and rations have been drastically reduced. Food is still a major problem, especially after COVID-19 hit. My children are out of school and have no future or jobs. We are human beings who are suffering. Please — help us.”

Unable to return

Amma Alkali would love to return home, but cannot.

Amma Alkali, a 66-year-old mother, arrived with her children last year in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, after fleeing Dara Jamal, a village in the Bama LGA, in 2014.

She said: “I would love to return home, but Bama is not safe yet. Dara Jamal, our hometown, is not safe either. If the Government plans to return us, they should provide us with security, housing and food support. The help that we are receiving is not enough. So, if we must return home, the place must be safe for us. Food must be available.” Amma lived in Cameroon’s Minawao refugee camp for seven years. Her husband and eldest son were attacked and killed by the insurgents while on their way to Maiduguri.

A rapidly deteriorating crisis

“Hardship can sometimes trigger domestic violence in the camps,” Hajiya told the Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, during a virtual meeting at the Teachers Village IDP camp last month, Maiduguri.

The pandemic has made a bad situation worse — an estimated 8.7 million people in north-east Nigeria need some form of humanitarian assistance, 6.4 million of whom are targeted to receive humanitarian assistance in 2021. The ongoing conflict continues to be the major driver of humanitarian needs, but long-standing insecurity, access constraints and logistical challenges make it difficult to deliver humanitarian assistance.

Threadbare livelihoods are compounded by conflict, and the impact of climate change is undermining food security, affecting millions of people.

Violence against women and girls, including abduction, rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, is prevalent in the affected area, with women and children being the most vulnerable.

The United Nations and partners’ Humanitarian Response Plan for north-east Nigeria is still massively underfunded. We urgently need more support to help these people through a dangerous and difficult time.