olding an aluminium bowl and a hoe, Binta Hassan walked sluggishly towards her hut on a hot Thursday afternoon. On reaching the hut, she sat on a stone and reclined against a wall of cornstalks that her hut was made from. She beckoned on one of her four children, a four-year-old girl, to put the hoe she was holding aside as she spoke.
“I am coming straight from the farm,” she told PREMIUM TIMES in July. “In our culture, only helpless married women farm, but this has been my reality since I came here.”
Mrs Hassan works as a labourer on a farm close to the internally displaced people’s (IDP) camp in Damaturu, the capital city of Yobe State, where she lives. She is “lucky” to be among the few residents of the camp hired by the owner of the farm. She earns a daily wage of N400 for working on the farm for up to five hours daily.
“If you don’t do this, you will go several days without eating. But what I get is not enough to feed me and my four children,” Mrs Hassan said.
The Bayari YBC camp hosts more than 300 people, most of them displaced by the Boko Haram terror group from Gada in the Gujba area of Yobe State.
The huts in the camps are built with cornstalks and tarpaulin and the residents have been staying here with no improvement to their lives since their village was sacked by Boko Haram insurgents in 2016.
The insurgents’ attacks on communities like Gujba, Geidam and Damaturu on the boundary between Borno and Yobe states, were intense and relentless, forcing most of the residents of the areas to flee to IDP camps in relatively safe places like Damaturu.
Endless hunger pangs
he IDPs, mainly women and children, say their main concern is lack of food. The children looked emaciated and their growth appeared stunted. This was different from the lives they lived before they were uprooted from their hometowns by the terrorists.
Mrs Hassan said life used to be good. She said her husband provided for the family until the terrorists attacked their community and their lives were upended.
“He used to be rich but he is now a labourer. When the terrorists came, we couldn’t take anything from our house; all our herds of cattle and grains were stolen,” she said.
The 38-year-old mother said sometimes she spends a whole week without seeing her husband.
“I understand his situation and that of other men; they don’t like to stay here doing nothing so they go out sometimes for days without coming back and when they return they hardly return with something meaningful because the poverty situation is everywhere,” she said.
Another resident of the camp, 70-year-old Zainab Jibrin, is raising five grandchildren after her son, the father of the children, was killed by the insurgents. The mother of the children died of natural causes after three years in the camp.
“My son, who was later killed by Boko Haram, helped me to escape the attack. We passed in their (terrorists) front because they said they were only looking for men who were helping the infidels. I trekked for over 20 kilometres to reach Damaturu,” she said.
The Boko Haram insurgency is one of the most brutal conflicts in Nigeria’s history. More than 35,000 people are said to have lost their lives due to the insurgency. Over 1.8 million people are displaced in the three states.
The camp in Damaturu is among the 445 displaced sites in the state, according to the United Nations. About 22,949 displaced households need shelter in the state.
All the women this reporter met that day had a different Boko Haram story to tell but they had two common concerns – how to get food and possibly return home. All of them also said they could not return to their original homes as they believed it was not safe to do so.
In another corner of the camp, three women, surrounded by children, sat in a circle preparing a vegetable meal called Tafasa in Hausa.
“This is our food every day. Sometimes we just cook it and eat like that but when we’re lucky we get some ingredients like salt, pepper and oil to eat with,” Aisha Lawan, one of the women, said without looking up.
While her hands worked on the leaves in a silver tray, her daughter, two-year-old Halima Isa, sat on a mat.
Halima was diagnosed with malnutrition and Mrs Lawan took her to the Katarko Primary Healthcare centre for medication twice.
“Hunger. They said it is hunger, that Halima is not eating good food,” Mrs Lawan said when asked what the medical health workers told her.
“They said I should bring her to the place every Tuesday but who has the money to go there every day?” Katarko is about 15 kilometres from Damaturu city.
Zainab Abubakar’s problem is similar to Mrs Lawan’s. Her son, Hussaini, is two years and six months old but looks like a one-year-old. He looked emaciated and had not been able to walk like his age mates.
“Malnutrition,” she told me. “Not only the boy, everyone in this camp is hungry. So, when they (health officials) said he was suffering from malnutrition, I knew they were right because we don’t have anything to eat.”
According to the United Nations, acute malnutrition in Yobe State from January to April increased by 41 per cent compared to the same period in 2022.
Sitting beside her mother, 10-year-old Maimuna Abubakar said she had not eaten for an entire day. Her mother said they survive on the pittance her husband who works as a labourer in Maiduguri in Borno State sends occasionally.
“Sometimes when he sees someone coming here, he gives him N5,000 or above to bring to me, but it’s not enough,” she said.
Living in the camp is difficult. Aside from living with the trauma of the brutal insurgency, IDPs in the camp battle for basic amenities. Sanitation facilities are unavailable. There is only one toilet at the camp and one of the women said it had not been in use for over a year.
There are no health facilities in the camp as well and IDPs have to travel several kilometres to get healthcare.
At the Katarko Primary Healthcare Centre where most of the women take their children, Auwal Garbo, the officer in charge, told PREMIUM TIMES that drugs and medication for malnutrition, measles and other child diseases were all free.
However, the women in the camp said they pay for every medication they get.
“When I’m sick, I go into the bush to pluck medicinal leaves, prepare and drink. Sometimes when you go to the hospital, they subject you to rounds of procedures,” Mrs Hassan said. She said for the seven years she has been in the camp, she went to hospital only once. “We solidly rely on God.”
The camp coordinator, Abdullahi Usman, said the state government was not doing enough to help those displaced by the insurgency.
“During the last administration, we were given food but it has stopped. Every corner you look at in this camp, you will see a displaced farmer with his family. Farming is the only thing we know but we can no longer do it,” he said.
He said during Ibrahim Geidam’s administration (2008 – 2019), the camp was among those provided with foodstuffs and other necessities every three months.
“We don’t know what actually happened (that the aid stopped coming). I’ve made several efforts to reach the SEMA (State Emergency Management Agency) executive secretary without success,” he said.
The Executive Secretary of Yobe’s SEMA, Mohammed Goje, did not respond to calls and SMS sent to his mobile phone for comment about the welfare of the IDPs.
Lack of access to education
hildren in the camp are not enrolled in school. Mr Usman said most of the children, especially the girls, had gone to the farm or other places to either beg for alms or do menial jobs.
Parents said their main concern was how to feed their children and not if they were enrolled in school or not.
Maimuna, Mrs Zainabu’s daughter, said she had started going to school in Gada before the terrorists struck. She wants to return now.
“If I go back (to my hometown) I will return to school. We don’t have any school here and I want to learn,” she said. And for the second time, she complained of hunger. Her mother, Mrs Abubakar, shook her head and looked away, her face full of regrets and frustration.
But if she returns home, her chances of returning to school are uncertain as Boko Haram fighters left her community desolate when they attacked it.
“Education is the first casualty in this war,” Baba Ali, an educationist with the Yobe State University Damaturu, told PREMIUM TIMES. “They’re hundreds of thousands of those children you saw and they’re all not going to school. I’m afraid of what the future holds.”
The Boko Haram ideology was built on the premise of fighting Western education. Many Schools including Government Girls Science Secondary School Dapchi, Government Girls Secondary School Chibok and Federal Government College Buni Yadi, were attacked by the terrorists. Buni Yadi is not far from Gada where most of the IDPs in Bayari YBC now live.
The United Nations is worried that children are dropping out of school to search for food through begging or child labour.
Yobe State is unsurprisingly on the list of states with high rates of out-of-school children. In 2020, the state, with 427,230 out-of-school children, was among the 10 states with the highest number of out-of-school children in the country.
“Even if they want to go to school, they can’t because what will they use to go to the school, who will enrol them when we’re falling over ourselves to get what to eat?” Ms Jibrin, the septuagenarian grandmother with five grandchildren, said.
A United Nations report seems to agree with Ms Jibrin’s assertion. Displaced, returnee and host communities children are sometimes unable to enrol in school due to the poverty level of their parents, the report states.
The Boko Haram insurgency has largely been curtailed. Attacks now happen occasionally. Military checkpoints on the Potiskum-Damaturu highway and Damaturu-Geidam have reduced but for the women and children of Bayari YBC camp, hunger and despair continue.
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