Running from Boko Haram
“I saw Boko Haram with my own eyes and I saw the bodies. If I think about the corpses, I will cry.”
These are the words of 12-year-old Tahiru Abakhar whose family was attacked by Boko Haram in Baga and again hounded by the Islamist group in other towns until they fled to neighbouring Chad.
“After Boko Haram attacked us in Baga, we fled to Doro.
Then Boko Haram followed us and attacked there.
Then we escaped from Doro to the river and came to Ngouboua with a little boat. Then they attacked at Ngouboua and then we fled to Dar?es??Salaam [a Chadian refugee camp],” Tahiru explains.
In January thousands of Nigerians made their way to Ngouboua, a fishing village on Lake Chad. But they found little peace. Ngouboua was attacked by Boko Haram on February 13.
This was the militant group’s first breach of Chad’s border. Reports put the number of dead between 10 and 13 and aerial photographs showed a large portion of the town’s homes burned down.
Passing through Ngouboua recently, it was hard not to see and feel the loss. Many lost all their belongings in the blaze. Soot-covered houses were too numerous to count. Blackened clothes are melted together in the hot sand, cooking pots strewn in the ruins.
Following the attack on Ngouboua, the Chadian government, with the assistance of the United Nations refugee agency and partners, started moving Nigerian refugees to a camp named Dar es Salaam at Baga Sola.
An estimated 7 000 people are stuck on the islands in Lake Chad and more are awaiting assistance and transportation from Ngouboua.
Quest to launch an Islamic state
The Baga attack on January?3, which was recorded as Boko Haram’s most violent, attracted perhaps the most media coverage since the jihadist group launched its attacks in 2009 in its quest to create an Islamic state. This, and its subsequent strikes on surrounding areas, has resulted in an estimated 170 000 people fleeing to neighbouring countries to seek safety.
Until January, the majority of refugees fled to Cameroon and Niger, but there has now been a sustained influx into Chad.
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, has already declared war on Chad in a video released in January shortly after Chad joined a military coalition to fight the insurgents. He also denounced Chad’s President Idriss Déby.
Chad formed a military alliance in January with Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon, aimed at defeating Boko Haram. Chad’s 20 000-strong army is the most effective in the region. It claims to have inflicted heavy losses on Boko Haram inside Nigeria.
Peace at Dar es Salaam
Families and children who have gone through terrifying ordeals are filling up Dar es Salaam. Conditions are not easy but there is a sense of safety. A heavy contingent of joint military forces police the camp precinct where 4 000 mostly Nigerians have taken refuge since it was opened in mid-January.
The sun bakes down on the white plastic UN tents as people try to go about a normal life. Groups gather, squatting in the sand, as they cook the limited food, mostly rice, available to them.
Children collect firewood and others help their mothers pump water at one of the boreholes, filling bright yellow containers. Mothers bathe their children, balancing them on pieces of cardboard to keep them from sitting in the sand. Inside the tents there is little or no furniture. Only blankets are laid out on reed mats.
There is much sorrow in the newly found peace; few families at Dar?es??Salaam have arrived as a unit. Most are fragmented, having been separated from one another during the attacks.
Chaos in the night
From the accounts of those in the camps, Boko Haram prefers night attacks during which, under the cover of darkness and in the ensuing chaos, wives and husbands are separated and children get lost in the rush to safety.
Twenty-year-old Hammah Aminu has been in Dar es Salaam camp for two months. Her husband wasn’t home when Boko Haram entered her hometown of Doro and she ended up fleeing with her brothers. She was separated from them and is now feeling very alone at the camp.
“I have heard that my husband is in Maiduguri [in Nigeria] and I want to meet him, but I have no way to go there. I have lost many things when I left; I lost my telephones and my clothes and food,” she says, crying with her hands over her eyes.
But some say they have good endings to their horror.
When Boko Haram attacked Doro, nine-year-old Habiba Idris lost sight of her parents and her six brothers and sisters. She managed to flee across the lake with family friends.
On arriving in Ngouboua she was told that Boko Haram had probably killed her father because someone had seen him go to Dabata Amina to look for his family. Boko Haram attacked that town too.
“After I heard that I was crying,” Habiba says.
But the next morning a boy came to tell her they had seen her father in Ngouboua. It turns out he, too, had crossed the lake in the search for his family. “I said, thank God. When I saw my father I was so glad,” Habiba remembers.
Once reunited, Habiba and her father made their way to Dar?es??Salaam where they tracked down her mother and some of her siblings.
Not enough food
Aminu says food at the camp is not enough – a sentiment echoed by many other refugees. Every day portions of rice and a few other staples are dished out to families and they cook for themselves.
The local residents seem to have welcomed the refugees. The citizens of Nigeria and Chad are finding unity against their common enemy: Boko Haram.
“The population was very surprised by the arrival of so many refugees but they have been very fair and have been supportive. They have a moral obligation to support these people,” says Dimouya Souapebe, speaking as the local government authority in Baga Sola.
Dar es Salaam camp co-ordinator Idriss Dezeh says locals have received the Nigerian refugees with open arms. “There are even some who have donated food … they have been extraordinary.”
But the increasing number of refugees in the area is putting pressure on the local population and resources.
Souapebe acknowledges this, saying: “There can be problems with price increases and also stock levels of food and products for the local population. This is also because it is not easy to get farm produce and products to Baga Sola.”
People are scared
Sitting in a makeshift shack on the border of the lake, Muhammad Kurundu, a metal worker in Baga Sola, says his business has suffered since the refugees started arriving in the area.
“Before the refugees came, people bought a lot of things. But since the refugees arrived, everyone is scared and staying in their villages and don’t want to come to the market.
“The people are scared because Boko Haram want to attack and kill them. All the routes are blocked, they are afraid of being burned or assassinated or have their throats slit on the way,” says Kurundu.
Shop owner Ali Abdullah says that since the refugees arrived the sale of clothing and shoes is not good, but the sale of his foodstuffs, such as sugar, maize, rice and tea is going well.
“Since the refugees arrived, the sale of consumables is good, but all the routes are blocked. We can’t go to Nigeria or Cameroon [to buy products] … our products can only come from N’Djamena [Chad’s capital] or Libya.”
With Nigeria’s pending election on March 28, few are hopeful of going home. For them, neither President Goodluck Jonathan nor his rival Muhammadu Buhari have the will to tackle Boko Haram, which they say will continue its reign of terror even after the poll.
The implication for neighbouring Chad then is that more refugees may be coming their way.