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Northern Nigeria: Escaping the violence, time after time

Photo : Mary Ishaku and Rifkatu Shawulu

The escalating violence in northern Nigeria is making it difficult to protect and provide aid to the local population. Yassine Gaba, head of ECHO’s Nigeria office, travelled to the region where a state of emergency has been imposed to meet with displaced families.

 

Yassine Gaba, Head of ECHO’s Nigeria Office

Arriving in Yola airport catapults you deep into Nigeria’s reality. Lush and green but with limited infrastructure and a sense of chaos you hardly experience in the capital Abuja. Yola is the capital of Adamawa, which has been under a state of emergency since May 2013, together with neighbouring Borno and Yobe states.

Leaving the airport, we take a flooded dirt road to a nearby location hidden in the middle of maize fields. Several hundreds of displaced people from Borno and northern Adamawa are said to have found refuge here.

We arrive in a courtyard enclosed by buildings under construction. The site has been put at the disposal by a member of the local church. We are immediately surrounded by people in colorful dress for what could be for an instance mistaken as a joyful gathering. But the serious faces and listlessness reveal that this is not a party.

They praise us for being there. Our visit was unexpected. They do not quite understand who we are, but they appreciate that we are here with them. And that we take the time to listen to their stories and to what’s made them so desperately dependent on aid. We see many women with children as well as young men. They have been the primary targets of Boko Haram’s killings and abductions.

We meet Ladi. At 14 years old, she is already in charge of the family. Or what remains of it after witnessing both her parents being massacred. Ladi was carrying her four-year old sister Mary when it happened. Together with Toma, their brother of nine, they ran for their lives. The following day we learn that their mother was in fact found alive, but will be permanently disabled as a result of her injuries.

 

We also talk to Mary Ishaku and Rifkatu Shawulu, two elderly ladies, dignified but clearly exhausted after having been on the move for the past month. They initially fled the terror in Gwoza, 300 km further north. But the violence seemed to come after them each time they thought they’d found refuge. Altogether they and their husbands have been displaced five times since they first ran away a little over a month ago.

Photo: Toma (9), Mary (4) and Lani (14)

They talk about what happened to them and to some of their relatives and fellow displaced whom they lost sight of after another chaotic displacement. They tell me of the fear they felt when they heard the terrorists coming, killing on their way. They tell me of a five-year-old girl who was found in the bush by a woman who was fleeing. She took the girl with her but has no clue who she is or where she came from. The girl is too shocked to talk and needs psychological support. Above all she needs to be re-united with her family. Tracing and protection are as much a priority as food assistance or sanitation.

People here are in need of just about everything. They survive on donations from the local communities. Having been displaced time and again, many have nothing left but the clothes they wear. Families have been split up and most of them are missing close relatives. What surprises me is that despite their obvious needs, they feel sorrier for people who are even worse off.

After having talked to people, we visit the settlement to list the basic needs. Living conditions are below standard. There is no water; it has to be purchased locally. There is only one latrine for 200 families; most people defecate out in the open. Some families are staying in unfinished rooms, but many more are sleeping outside without mosquito nets or tarpaulins to protect them from the sun and rain. They occasionally get food; this is their number one priority, food is what they ask for.

The only support they receive is through local faith-based organisations which lack resources and capacity. They provide them with whatever they can collect from the most well-off members of the community, but this aid is not sustainable and tomorrow is never guaranteed. Partners of the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection service (ECHO), currently present in Yola, have asked these organisations for help in assessing the needs so as to organise an emergency response.

Sites with displaced people are progressively being identified and a basic form of registration is starting. This momentum and the resilience demonstrated by the displaced people are encouraging and while leaving these people behind I have but one idea in mind: it is time to act!