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Reportage. Nigeria – Escaping Boko Haram

They flee, leaving everything behind them. They find shelter with relatives and friends. Only a few of them prefer to go to the official centres administered by the government. Director of Caritas Nigeria urges: “Camps with adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities are urgently needed.”

Only ten months ago, Mohammed Bashiru was an entrepreneur living a comfortable life in Gwoza, a town in northeastern Nigeria. He has now become homeless and jobless. His life was turned upside down the night when the Boko Haram militiamen attacked the city, which is now the capital of the “Caliphate”.

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“They arrived unexpectedly driving their pick up vehicles – says Bashiru – and they started to shoot and burn houses and shops, starting with the police station and the offices of the civil authorities. Not even the small clinic was spared. We ran away terrified.”
Bashiru does not know whether his parents and his brothers are still alive. A friend told him that his shop was set on fire. “I no longer have a house,” he says. “We escaped carrying with us nothing but the clothes we were wearing.”
After walking for hours, he reached a distant relative who gave him hospitality in a small house. “Every morning- he says – I wake up thinking of how I can find food for my kids, or the money to pay school fees so that my children can resume attending classes. I want my life back. When I look at my four children, I feel scared about the future. I have nothing left. I survive thanks to the generosity of some relatives and friends.

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More than half a million people are estimated to have been displaced from their homes due to Boko Haram terrorist attacks. According to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), 90% of displaced people prefer to stay with relatives and friends rather than in the camps administrated by the government. A fact which shows how values such as hospitality and autonomy are typical of Nigerian society.
“The official emergency centres, generally set up in schools, are overcrowded and there are not enough hygiene and sanitation facilities. I was scared that an epidemic would burst” – Bashiru says – “Outbreaks of measles have been reported in a refugee camp. This is why I accepted my relatives’ hospitality.”
The state’s capital Maiduguri is the first city where civilians seek shelter. The city, which was once a gateway for trade with Cameroon, Chad and Niger, has been attacked twice by Boko Haram militiamen in recent weeks. Now soldiers, not only Nigerians, are everywhere in Maiduguri. Thousands of civilians flee as refugees to the middle belt of Nigeria.
Yabani Suraj is in charge of one of the ten refugee centres of Maiduguri. “It’s the first time we are facing a crisis of similar proportions. More and more people arrive everyday and there is no more space. Operating in these conditions is tough. We have just set up 50 tents near a school but they are not enough. We assist the refugees registered in the camp and not those living with relatives and friends. This might create tensions difficult to manage in the long term.”

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Halima Rahama arrived at the camp only a few hours ago; she ran away from Yajiwa, a town located 40 kilometers from Maiduguri. She says: “The militiamen arrived in the afternoon and camped at our village. They robbed animals and food. While they were there, an airstrike took place, the bombing destroyed our homes but missed our attackers. The day after, Boko Haram militiamen came back and ordered people to gather in the central square of the village, ostensibly to listen to preaching, the militiamen, instead, opened fire on people and killed 50 of them.”
Halima fled her village with her husband and her five children heading for Maiduguri. At first they found shelter with Halima’ s sister, then they decided to reach the refugee centre.
Nafisa Binta is seated by the wayside and sells peanuts. She also had to leave her home, “They arrived at three in the afternoon, they wore uniforms of the Nigerian army. They started to shoot. People started to run away and the Boko Haram terrorists killed them in the street. The military intervened, but soon they had to withdraw since they had run out of ammunition.” Nafisa adds: “I hope things will get better after the political elections. I am Muslim and I feel that the Boko Haram men have nothing to do with Islam. They are only interested in stealing our animals and anything that belongs to us.”

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Hassana Raki lived 15 kilometers from the town of Chibok, in Borno State, where last April, more than 200 high school students were kidnapped. She says that escaping was the most painful and at the same time the most important decision of her life. “I have three daughters, aged 10, 12 and 15. The fear that Boko Haram men could kidnap them prompted us to flee.”
Father Evaristus Bassey, Director of Caritas Nigeria, talking about refugees’ living conditions says, “We urgently need camps that meet basic human needs, with adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities. The hundreds of thousands of displaced people are also victims of lack of assistance projects by the government.” Through the National Emergency Management Agency – Father Bassey underlines that federal authorities are supposed to coordinate humanitarian assistance, but, as a matter of fact, they just limit themselves to organising food distribution and do not provide adequate shelter and livable camps. (H.L.)

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