All that was familiar

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.

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.

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 notoriety for dishing out corporal punishment to civilians on the streets was firmly established during the succession of military regimes between 1966-1999.

Recently, there have been reports that the soldiers and vigilantes guarding the camps have been exchanging food for sex with desperate inhabitants of the camps. Some IDPs have become pregnant as a result. I found myself wondering if, desperate as she was to feed her children, Sa’adatu would eventually succumb to something similar. There is nothing hunger will not drive people to.

Without authorisation, I managed to make my way into the Bakassi Camp early the next morning.

What has become the Bakassi Camp was conceived as a luxury estate for the high and mighty. Driving in through gates manned by the military and local vigilantes, one is confronted by expansive flats stretching into the distance. They are still unpainted. Built with public funds, a government official tried to appropriate the choice real estate for private use, but after another round of elections new officials seized the property and put it to use as a camp for IDPs.

Beyond the luxury flats, endless rows of tarpaulin shelters have been set up to accommodate more and more IDPs pouring in from different parts of Borno, from areas that have been occupied or attacked by Boko Haram. Nearly thirty thousand people live in the Bakassi camp.

Sa’adatu is from Gwoza, eighty-five miles south-east of Maiduguri. In 2014, when Boko Haram was at the height of its powers, the town came under sporadic attack. Sa’adatu’s husband, Musa Adamu – who had two other wives and a total of nineteen children – was just recovering from surgery and contemplating moving his family to a more secure location.

‘We heard stories of “the boys” ambushing people on the way and killing them,’ she said, referring to Boko Haram. Boko Haram do not like being called Boko Haram, which they see as derogatory, and those who have lived within reach of their reign of terror have found other euphemisms for them. Afraid they would be waylaid if they left, she and her family stayed on in Gwoza, hoping to ride out the trouble. But after the Eid feast of July 2014, Boko Haram tightened its grip around their town and they realised they couldn’t stay any longer. The possibility of fleeing into an ambush became more enticing than waiting to be gunned down in their homes.

‘If the boys had stopped us on the way, it would have been Allah’s will,’ she said, stirring the steaming gruel. I wondered if the meal was being overcooked when I noticed how mildly the flame was burning, licking the bottom of the pot without commitment. One of Sa’adatu’s daughters walked in, aged about ten, her skin dripping with water. She had just had her bath in one of the toilets in camp, of which there were several. Made of roofing sheets, these are strategically located to avoid overcrowding. Hand-pumped boreholes provide water, so Sa’adatu’s water-storage utensils were left empty in the corner of the room. The girl sat opposite her mother, looking into the pot while pretending to twiddle with her toes.

Back in 2014, Sa’adatu had packed carefully. They took utensils, bedding and a supply of food, both cooked and uncooked. She loaded this onto the heads of her children, strapped her last born, only a few weeks old then, on her back, and together with her husband set out on foot. They trekked for two days and a night, avoiding major roads and towns, until they arrived at a military facility.

The soldiers don’t know who the enemy is, because Boko Haram is not a conventional army. As a result, the family was detained and questioned for days. If they were judged to be Boko Haram sympathisers, their fate would be sealed. The saving grace, Sa’adatu said, was that someone the military trusted vouched for them.

‘The man knew my husband and told them he was certain that we weren’t involved with Boko Haram. He told them he knew us very well and had last seen my husband a month before,’ she said.

Perhaps if he hadn’t added the last sentence, things might have turned out differently. The soldiers wanted to look into that one-month window. The whole family was transferred to Giwa barracks in Maiduguri, which had become notorious as a detention centre for suspected members of the Boko Haram terror group. Amnesty International’s report in May 2016 suggested that between January and May 2016, 149 people, including children as young as five months, died at Giwa.

Sa’adatu and her husband were unaware of these figures, and even if they had heard rumours about Giwa barrack’s notoriety, anywhere was better than being held in Boko Haram’s enclave.

Sa’adatu and her children were put in a detention cell alongside other women and minors. She estimates their numbers to be around two hundred and eighty. There was no toilet, and since they were locked in between 4 p.m. and 9 a.m., they urinated and defecated in a huge plastic drum, which they took turns emptying in the morning.

The men were held in a separate building. They were not let out. So in the hours that the cell doors were thrown open to her, Sa’adatu went round the back of the men’s detention building to catch glimpses of her husband through the window.

‘I would wave at him and he would wave back,’ she said, looking at the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) logo printed on the white tarpaulin wall as if she could see his face there. ‘When his shirt was dirty, he would take it off and throw it through the window. I would wash it and throw it back to him so the soldiers didn’t see.’

After two months at Giwa, her husband sent her a message. He had heard they were going to be transferred to another facility for further interrogation. ‘He asked me and the children to fast and pray for him,’ she said. Sa’adatu was also worried. She had heard stories by now from other detainees, and from the soldiers too.

‘We were told that during the previous government, the men were taken and shot. But now things are better so they are only taken to be questioned. Those who are not involved in the insurgency might get out in five months. So don’t worry, they said, if your husband is innocent, he will be out in months. But we were told that if death comes, whether you are in your home or in the market, it will meet you. Some of the men may die before those five months are up.’

The next morning, Sa’adatu and the other women watched as a vehicle escorted by armed soldiers took the men away. With her little boy balanced on her hips, she watched the convoy drive towards the gates and recede into the distance, wondering when she would see her husband again. She was sure she would see him again. He had nothing the soldiers wanted; he was innocent. She was certain of that. But ten, long months have passed since that day. Her little baby has grown into a toddler, and Sa’adatu’s husband has not returned.

‘We took ourselves there,’ she said, her voice trailing off. ‘By ourselves, we took ourselves there.’

Two months after her husband was shipped out of Giwa barracks, Sa’adatu and her children were crammed into a vehicle and moved to the Arabic Teachers’ College camp, where over a year later hunger would drive the IDPs into the streets. She only stayed twenty days. The truck came for her again and this time she was moved to the Bakassi Camp, where another ten thousand people from Gwoza were kept. Sa’adatu felt better back among familiar faces, comforted by people who knew for certain her husband was only a victim, just as they all were.

But here, at Bakassi, new challenges arose. In the eight months she has been at the camp, the stores have remained empty. The last time supplies were replenished was over a year ago, months before she arrived. Relief materials are scarce, and the IDPs are not allowed to go out and beg for food or alms. Maiduguri is laden with whispers – whispers of trucks loaded with relief materials driving in through the front gates of the camps, and then driving out the rear gates, still fully loaded.

Sometimes, Sa’adatu strolls by the camp kitchen to see if the hearth is being stoked in preparation for a meal. But the ashes have been cold for weeks now and she often returns with tears stinging in her eyes, unsure what to tell the children. And with the exits from the camps tightly controlled by the soldiers and vigilantes, her chances of going out to beg for food on the streets are curtailed, and the possibility of getting news of her husband increasingly remote.

Rumours of a possible relocation to Gwoza, which might happen by the end of the year, do not excite her as they do the other IDPs, who think that back home they might be able to find food more regularly. The way Sa’adatu sighed at the rumours, I suspected a return home might have appealed if her husband was with her.

‘I don’t know where my husband is, whether he is dead or alive,’ she said, her head cocked to one side in a posture of resignation. The room is silent now, completely, save for the wheezing breath of her hungry children sleeping on the empty sack on the floor.


To be continued

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