Personal Account of Internally Displaced Persons in Nigeria – Viewpoint Gwoza!

By Youniq Team

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Visiting with Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from Gwoza, North East Nigeria

She was sitting on a half built concrete wall gazing into the distance.

Although there were women and children milling around. She seemed lost to the world. Unaffected by the noise and beehive of activity around her.

She couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old but something about the way she sat pensive, back hunched, chin in palm reminded me of a wizened old woman.

IDP Children x3 Foto BW

Perhaps she felt my gaze upon her for she looked up at that moment and our eyes met.

I found myself drawn into the whirlpool of sadness in her large white eyes. Eyes fringed by the longest darkest lashes I have ever seen.

She had been crying and in that moment it was only her tear stained haunted face I saw. Pinched and drawn but with skin so dark , so flawless and unblemished it was hard to believe that she like all the children now running wild and kicking up dust in this shabby compound with the uncompleted and dilapidated buildings were very lucky to be alive.

I reached out and touched her on the shoulder struck by how fragile she looked.

Mai sunan ki?’ I asked as I leaned closer to her fighting the urge to pull her into my arms and hug her tightly. ‘Esther’ she mumbled looking down at her bare feet.

‘Ina Maman ki?’ I hoped that I was making any sense to her as she hesitated.

Not for the first time in my life I regretted the fact that I could barely speak any Hausa. My refusal to learn the language was deliberate. An assertion of my own minority ethnic and cultural identity.

She could be Gioko, Waja, Glarda, Cineni, Ghwede or even Kanuri. Many minorities in the far North of Nigeria speak Hausa as a first language out of necessity.

It occurred to me that her mother may have been killed in the attacks or worse still abducted.

Perhaps it was a good thing after all if I was not making any sense to her.

‘Esther’ I shook her frail shoulders gently.

She seemed to retreat into her world, refusing to look up at me

Time seemed to stand still as the sun bore down on us mercilessly.

Though the moment had passed, I knew that what I had seen in that little girl’s face would haunt me for the rest of my life.

The air was dense and heavy with the smell of stale sweat as a motley crowd gathered around us. I looked up at the haggard and drawn faces of mostly women and children as they pushed forward expectantly. A few men hung back their faces gaunt and devoid of expression.

I was struck by a sudden realisation of the enormity of the crisis.

This camp was just one of many, of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) scattered around Abuja metropolis.

Family Matters as IDP Crisis deepens

I was given to understand that there were many other camps like this one in other towns in the North of Nigeria. Camps comprising mostly of women and children. Victims of the terrorist group Boko Haram .They had fled from the carnage and bloodshed wreaked by Boko Haram in their homes.

Not only had they lost everything they owned, many of the women had witnessed the brutal massacre of their sons and husbands. Even worse, some of their daughters and sisters had been abducted by the terrorist group.

I was overwhelmed by the gravity of the tragedy that had befallen them.

At least they had come out of it all alive. Perhaps they could be helped in some way.

They had survived the most difficult part, the brutality of Boko Haram.

Could they survive the deep ethnic and religious divisions in Nigeria that drove so many to buy into a narrative of ‘them versus us’ and to turn a blind eye to the plight of their fellow countrymen?

I cast hastily about for a distraction to my disconcerting thoughts.

Soap. I had brought soap. It was one of the many things I had been told they needed. And clothes for the babies that had been born in the camp. Looking around at the crowd I knew that the items I had brought would barely scratch the surface.

I had accompanied a small group of compassionate, courageous and determined women on this visit. Most of them already involved with ‘The Bring Back Our Girls’ campaign.

These women had gone to extra ordinary lengths at their own personal expense to cater for the needs of the people in this camp. Some of them ferried pregnant women to the hospital and paid their bills. Others took children to be vaccinated. They bought food stuff, toiletries and clothing items.

It was easy to see how it could become overwhelming for individuals and small organisations attempting to tackle a crisis of such gargantuan proportions with very little resources at their disposal.

I was heartened by the efforts of these women. Some of them Ibo, others Yoruba as well as a diverse mix of other ethnicities. In their actions I saw a glimmer of hope for Nigeria, a country that has long struggled to reconcile itself with its great ethnic and religious diversity.

This group of women had clearly taken on more than they could handle and the suffering in the camps was beginning to get to some of them.

One of the women had confided in me that she was constantly having nightmares and was thinking of discontinuing her involvement with the camps because of the emotional toll it was taking on her.

I called my driver and volunteers to bring in the items. Blankets, Mosquito nets, boxes of noodles, clothes, underwear, detergent, powdered milk, sugar and toys.

As we distributed the items I had brought I reflected on all that I had been told about the camps to dissuade me from visiting.

I had been warned by some who on learning that I was on my way to visit a camp of internally displaced persons that not all of the people in these camps were ‘genuine refugees’. That some of them were members of Boko Haram. Others insisted that destitute and criminal elements had invaded the camps. No one could be trusted.

When they failed to dissuade me on those grounds, they assured me that a number of government agencies, individuals and Non-Governmental Organisations were already catering for all the needs of the IDPs. Besides, it was all part of a plan by Northern elite to embarrass the government and discredit the Southern leader.

Looking around me I was glad that I had come to see for myself.

My volunteers were a great help and I was deeply affected by the stories I heard.

I spoke to a mother whose 10 year old son had been snatched from her and shot dead as they fled their Village. She was inconsolable.

I spoke to another woman who had witnessed her husband’s killing. She seemed strangely detached as she recounted her ordeal.

I was to learn that she was Esther’s mother and that the little girl had been with her at the time and had witnessed her father’s gruesome murder.

My heart broke at the thought of the suffering of this mother and child.

These were a deeply traumatised people.

Many of the children had witnessed violence that nobody should have to see.

IDP Children Group Foto

They had lost siblings, parents and friends. They had seen the decapitated bodies of close family members.

I was deeply concerned about their physical and material needs but I was also achingly aware that they had huge psychological needs that may never be contemplated.

I resolved in my mind to do everything I could to bring attention to the plight of these forgotten ones.

I have since committed to working with two local NGO’s with which some of the women are involved in in order to strengthen efforts to provide all forms of assistance and support to the IDPs and most importantly to pressure the authorities to enhance the capacities of relevant government agencies to address the needs of the IDPs.

I have no illusions that the task ahead will be easy.

There are the basic needs of food, shelter and clothing and of course health care and hygiene for disease prevention.

I am convinced that with co-ordinated and joined efforts by NGOs, Volunteers, relevant state agencies and international bodies, significant progress can be made in providing much needed support and assistance to Internally Displaced Persons in Nigeria.

Facts about Gwoza

Population: 276,312 as at 2006 {safe to say over 200,000.}

Region:       Borno.

State:           Borno

Location:   135km South East of Maiduguri

Area Coverage: 2,883sq km

Topography- rocky and hilly. Gwoza Hills is about 1300m above sea level. Range of mountains forms a natural barrier between Nigeria and Cameroun.

Major Language: Kanuri.

Other Languages: Cineni, D Ghwede, Glarda, Gioko, Waja and a few others.

Gwoza region has 24 villages.

Chronicle of Boko Haram Activities

  • First arrived town in 2009.
  • Influx began into town began in 2014.
  • 30 May 2014: Emir of Gwoza, Idrissa Timta killed after being abducted with the Emir of Uba, Ismaila Manza by armed men on their way to attend the burial of the Emir of Gombe, Alhaji Shehu Abubakar.
  • 2 June 2014; Massacre.
  • 23 June 2014; attack on the town.
  • 19 Oct 2014; over 3,000 residents displaced.

*Efforts are on to liberate the town from the terrorists by the Nigerian military. So far, over 30 towns within the North East Region have been recaptured from the terrorists in the ongoing onslaught. And the saga continues and IDPs crisises deepens!

For details and Credit – Mernan Femi-Oluyede

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