Nigeria: Struggling to return to a normal life

1 December, 2016
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November 2016: Saratu (42) and her family spent months travelling through the bush at night. They finally arrived in Yola, where they moved into unfinished homes. Credit: OCHA/Ó.Fagan 

When Boko Haram entered Gwoza town in August 2014, Saratu and her husband gathered their family and fled for their lives. They left everything they owned: homes, farms and belongings.

Saratu and her family joined other families fleeing from the neigbourhood, and they travelled together on foot through the bush, often going without food and water for many days. For more than three months, the group could only move at night, terrified they would be spotted and either mistaken as militants or targeted by Boko Haram.

“Roads were blocked and we had no choice except to move at night,” said Saratu. “It was so dangerous; we were terrified we would be seen in daylight. At one stage we went for four days without food and water. Many people died along the way, too many of them were children who became sick and couldn’t manage the journey.”

Saratu and the 10 members of her family were lucky to survive the journey—her youngest child was just a few months old at the time. “I thought he wouldn’t make it,” she said. “He was so ill, but it was God’s will he should live.”

The families finally arrived in Yola, Adamawa state. Rather than going to an official campsite for displaced people, they found incomplete housing in a community and moved in. But this meant they were not overtly visible to the humanitarian community. The result is that now, more than two years later, these families still struggle to survive. They are internally displaced persons (IDPs), but they have slipped outside the net of humanitarian assistance and are unnoticed by the humanitarian community. They have become invisible, surviving on what scraps they can put together and working from dawn until dusk.

“The generosity of the host communities is extraordinary,” said Emma Khakula, Head of the International Organization for Migration sub-office in Maiduguri. “We have cases of households that once housed eight family members and now host up to 80 people. This is causing tension and stress among the host community who have shouldered an unbearable burden. The host communities and the IDPs among them must not be forgotten in our response.”

Trying to survive

There are many cases in which the communities face grave financial strain trying to cope. The same is true for the IDPs who, rather than being passive about the situation, are working towards their own solutions.
“We are trying to survive,” said Saratu. “I make bean cakes and sell them. My husband and I work on farms. So if we produce and gather two bags of groundnuts, we give the farmer one bag as payment and then sell the groundnuts on the streets.”

Yakubu (18) shows the room where he lives with his family in Yola. Credit: OCHA/Ó. Fagan

Their neighbours are also working on farms, and 18-year-old Yakubu was at home while the other five members of his family were out looking for work. “I wanted to go to school, but you need money to go to school and my family have no money,” he said. “My family work on farms but they don’t have money to buy me a uniform. You need to pay for secondary school.”

Yakubu’s six family members live and sleep in a single room, and they are the only people who have a door on their home.

The movement of citizens in and out of north-eastern towns reclaimed by the Nigerian Army is restricted for fear that Boko Haram will infiltrate the community and fighting will restart. This strategy is largely successful in keeping people safe, but it means that farmers have no access to land, and up to 5.8 million people are food insecure and depend on humanitarian assistance for survival.

“Our farms were in the bush outside Gwoza town,” explained Saratu. “When we had to work on the farm, we would travel and then camp in the bush if we were planting or harvesting. But we can’t return. We just need something to help us start up again. It will be a long time before we can even contemplate returning because of the security situation, but if we had help to access land and seeds, we would be able to manage. At least then we could return to normal living.”

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