All That Was Familiar

By Luke

S and her children waiting for food in the camp

Exactly twenty-four hours after I’d left Maiduguri, in Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria, the city where Boko Haram first sprung from, hundreds of shabbily dressed people poured onto the windswept streets demanding food.

A friend I’d met during my visit to the ancient capital drew my attention to the news on Facebook. As events unfolded, I followed the story from my home in Abuja, five hundred miles south of the troubled region.

The protesters were internally displaced persons (or IDPs) who, driven by hunger and desperation, had taken to the streets to protest neglect. It was easy for me to visualise how, with what little energy they had left in their bodies, they’d trudged onto the Maiduguri–Kano Road in worn flip-flops, cutting off traffic, waving their fists in the air. In the crowd I imagined the faces of Sa’adatu and Zahra, people I had been with only hours before, people who had survived the indiscriminate bullets of Boko Haram, only to be forced out of their homes and into the relative safety of Maiduguri and its dreary camps for displaced persons.

‘Our children are dying,’ Bashir Musty, one of the protesters said, ‘many are sick as a result of lack of food. All we are saying is we need food to feed our family.’ When I read this in newspaper reports, it was the image of Sa’adatu’s three hungry children lying on empty sacks on the floor of their shack, wheezing like dying animals, that came to my mind. The image had stuck and it refused to go away.

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Since Boko Haram began its insurgency in 2011, over two million people have been displaced from their homes in north-eastern Nigeria, northern Cameroon and southern Niger Republic. Only twenty per cent of these individuals are housed in established camps, most of which are in and around Maiduguri. The others have melded into host communities where they live in uncompleted buildings or temporary shacks set up in open fields. Some of them have fled as far south as the nation’s capital, Abuja, over five-hundred miles away, and where there are about thirty camps for IDPs. Some have gone even further south.

Sa’adatu Musa couldn’t travel south. Not that she wanted to. She is forty-five, has nine children – the oldest fifteen, the youngest just over a year old – and a husband who she hasn’t seen or heard from in ten months.

On the bare floor of her tarpaulin shack, Sa’adatu sat with her legs stretched out before her, cradling her baby, as she shoved a nipple in his mouth. With one hand she brushed the sand out of his hair; with the other she stirred the gruel she was making on an open flame in what was effectively her living room. In one corner there was an array of plastic utensils – buckets, jerrycans and a basin for collecting and storing water – and a stack of old aluminium plates, all clean and dry in a tray on the floor. Next to these were three of Sa’adatu’s nine children. They were lying on empty grain sacks spread out on the bare floor, their ribs disturbingly visible. They were skinny and weak and hungry.

‘They haven’t eaten in days,’ Sa’adatu told me as I sat on a stool across the room from her. ‘I went out and begged and someone gave me fifty naira. I bought some corn flour with it and I am making this for them.’ She stirred the gruel in the old, soot-covered pot.

Sa’adatu and her children waiting for food

Multiple reports of displaced persons dying of hunger surfaced in June and July 2016, prompting angry reactions and rebuttals from the Nigerian government and the government of Borno State, where the bulk of the displaced persons are from and where over one and a half million IDPs are currently located. Deaths from hunger may not be prevalent in the many camps around Maiduguri, but they are a reality in camps elsewhere in the state, in Bama, for instance.

In June 2016, photos emerged on social media of government officials re-bagging food meant for the IDPs to sell in the markets. The commandeering of relief materials for IDPs is a common occurrence here. Nutritious milk that UNICEF has designated for starving children regularly turns up in shops, where it sells for about a dollar. Looking at Sa’adatu’s children, I imagined how much they could do with that milk – or any milk for that matter.

This disturbing scene wasn’t what I had expected when I arrived at the Bakassi camp. Woolly clouds flecked the blue sky hanging over the red-and-blue aluminium roofs of a fenced-off but unfinished housing estate. The estate is so expansive one would have thought all the displaced persons in Maiduguri could fit into it. The picturesque scenery was disarming, so much so that when the reality beyond the fence hit, it was brutal.

I had arrived in Maiduguri days before. After spending a whole day in the 7th Division Headquarters of the Nigerian Army in Maiduguri, trying to secure authorisation to visit the camps, I was handed a letter on fine quality glossy paper, asking me to return to Abuja and apply through the army headquarters in Nigeria’s capital. The whole process would take at least five days. I couldn’t understand it. I wanted to write a happy story about the camps, about IDPs finding love and dreaming of returning home. What was the military afraid of? And who on earth would waste such a beautiful piece of paper, glossy and all, just to turn down my request?

A major in the army, smiling effusively as he swivelled in his chair, took the time to explain why they were being so cautious. They had had lots of negative reports from journalists; and they needed to protect the integrity of the IDPs. I listened to him, sipping the soft drink he had offered me from his office fridge. I understood why they had to be careful; the Nigerian Army hasn’t always had the greatest reputation for civility. Their …read more

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