In refuge from ter­ror­ists, Nige­ri­ans fight­ing famine

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY ALI ABUBAKAR ABARE

MAIDUGURI, NIGE­RIA | Buji Ab­dul­lahi and his fam­ily man­aged to es­cape the deadly at­tack on his vil­lage by the mil­i­tant Is­lamic group Boko Haram, but then he lost his young son to an­other scourge sweep­ing through the re­lief camps in north­east­ern Nige­ria: a des­per­ate lack of food.

In a land where peo­ple have en­dured more than their share of tragedy and loss in re­cent years, the specter of famine is pos­ing a cruel new threat.

“I watched my 2-year-old son, Hashimu, die from hunger,’’ said Mr. Ab­dul­lahi. “It was sad, but there was noth­ing I could do to save him.”

His loss re­flects a hu­man­i­tar­ian catas­tro­phe in the mak­ing in the coun­try’s Borno State and other parts of the re­gion where the Nige­rian mil­i­tary has been bat­tling the rad­i­cals.

The France-based Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders re­cently re­ported that hunger and mal­nu­tri­tion threaten hun­dreds of thou­sands of in­ter­nally dis­placed peo­ple like Mr. Ab­dul­lahi and his fam­ily, who are tak­ing refuge in camps in Borno State. In one camp in Bama, mal­nu­tri­tion and sick­ness claimed 200 deaths in a month, and a fifth of the chil­dren who re­mained were mal­nour­ished, the or­ga­ni­za­tion said.

“In sev­eral lo­ca­tions, peo­ple have sought refuge in towns or camps con­trolled by the mil­i­tary, and are en­tirely re­liant on out­side aid that does not reach them,” the group said in a state­ment. “The mor­tal­ity rate is five times higher than what is con­sid­ered an emer­gency, with the main cause be­ing hunger.”

Of­fi­cials fear the cri­sis could spread to mil­lions of refugees in Nige­ria and also Cameroon, Chad and Niger.

The United Na­tions Chil­dren’s Fund last month is­sued a dire fore­cast in­di­cat­ing as many as 75,000 chil­dren could die from a se­vere lack of food in Nige­ria in the next year if donors do not re­spond quickly to the needs of refugees who have fled to the camps dur­ing Boko Haram’s seven-year cam­paign to build an Is­lamic caliphate.

UNICEF nu­tri­tion chief Ar­jan de Wagt told The As­so­ci­ated Press that the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis in the re­gion is per­haps the worst in the world. Mal­nu­tri­tion has af­fect­ing up to half the chil­dren in some ar­eas, he said.

Of­fi­cials said this month that up to 2 mil­lion af­fected peo­ple in the re­gion have not been con­tacted, “and we can’t as­sess their sit­u­a­tion,” said U.N. As­sis­tant Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Toby Lanzer. “We can es­ti­mate that it’s aw­ful.”

Boko Haram is an Is­lamic State-af­fil­i­ated ji­hadi group that con­demns all Western ways as for­bid­den by Is­lam. Its fight­ers have kid­napped school­girls into slav­ery and waged a war that has left 20,000 peo­ple dead and an es­ti­mated 2.6 mil­lion up­rooted from their homes in Nige­ria and its neigh­bors.

Some of the refugees in Nige­ria have fled to camps es­tab­lished by the govern­ment. Oth­ers, such as Mr. Ab­dul­lahi, sought re­lief in makeshift fa­cil­i­ties set up by lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees are also liv­ing in camps in bor­der­ing coun­tries.

With help from its neigh­bors, the Nige­rian army has driven Boko Haram back from the ar­eas the group once oc­cu­pied. But the ji­hadis are still ac­tive in some ar­eas, and refugees are re­luc­tant to go home for fear of more vi­o­lence.

Refugees and aid work­ers said an­tic­i­pated govern­ment help never ar­rived in some cases, and food from re­lief groups was stolen and sold in the mar­ket­place for profit in other cases. Fam­ily mem­bers have taken odd jobs, in­clud­ing sex work, to pay for food when it is avail­able.

Look­ing for govern­ment aid

Mr. Ab­dul­lahi, whose fam­ily set­tled in a camp hosted by the com­mu­nity of Ben­ishiek about 60 miles from Maiduguri, said the govern­ment has brought food only once in the past two years. “They vis­ited us with a prom­ise to come back, but we never saw them,” he said.

He fled his home­town of Abu­lum af­ter Boko Haram fight­ers killed 15 of his neigh­bors in a raid.

“Ev­ery­one was run­ning away for his life,” he said.

With­out govern­ment aid, the 60-yearold re­tired rail­road worker said he and oth­ers like him are work­ing me­nial jobs to get food for their fam­i­lies. “Af­ter spend­ing weeks with­out food, I took to chop­ping fire­wood to sup­port my fam­ily,” he said.

Allen Manaseh, a project man­ager with Adopt A Camp, an aid or­ga­ni­za­tion in Maiduguri, said refugees in the host com­mu­nity camps are es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble be­cause of the camps’ un­of­fi­cial sta­tus. “The host com­mu­nity’s camps are on their own,” Mr. Manaseh said. “Some have been re­ceiv­ing as­sis­tance. You will see camps that no­body has ever vis­ited. These are points where you will re­ally see peo­ple in crit­i­cal need.”

Life isn’t much bet­ter in the govern­ment-con­trolled Sha­gari Low Cost In­ter­nally Dis­placed Per­sons camp in Maiduguri, said Bitrus Yakubu, a camp res­i­dent who said he could barely feed his fam­ily even though he is work­ing.

“I lost all my means of liveli­hood when I fled from my vil­lage, Pulka,” said Mr. Yakubu, 41, re­fer­ring to his small home­town near the Cameroo­nian bor­der. “Now I sur­vive on fill­ing sesame seeds into bags. Most times, how­ever, I watch my chil­dren go hun­gry for days. It’s get­ting past three months since we last re­ceived a food do­na­tion.”

Sarah Ndiku­mana, Nige­ria coun­try di­rec­tor at the In­ter­na­tional Res­cue Com­mit­tee, re­ported last month that “we are see­ing many women and chil­dren each day with acute mal­nu­tri­tion, which is of­ten cou­pled with com­pli­ca­tions such as malaria, tu­ber­cu­lo­sis, and other life-threat­en­ing ill­nesses. Wit­ness­ing this need in­side Maiduguri only con­firms the ur­gency with which we need to get things mov­ing at scale in other, pre­vi­ously un­reach­able ar­eas.”

Jack Vin­cent, Borno State co­or­di­na­tor of a lo­cal aid group, the So­cial Wel­fare Net­work Ini­tia­tive, said refugees com­plain of hunger even in govern­ment camps, which or­ga­nize al­most daily de­liv­er­ies of food from in­ter­na­tional re­lief agen­cies. The food marked “not for sale” some­times finds its way to mar­ket, he said.

“Let me tell you some­thing: In Maiduguri, in our lo­cal mar­kets, we see not-for­sale items dis­played,’’ Mr. Vin­cent said. “Some peo­ple have been caught on film re­bag­ging these prod­ucts, which are col­lected from a par­tic­u­lar area and taken to an­other for sale for profit-mak­ing.”

The Nige­rian govern­ment has said it would in­ves­ti­gate re­ports of stolen food.

The scarcity of food led one 32-year-old refugee to trade sex­ual fa­vors with camp work­ers in or­der to feed her­self and her two chil­dren.

“My hus­band was killed when the Boko Haram raided Gwoza,” said the wo­man, whose name is be­ing with­held be­cause she is a sex­ual as­sault vic­tim. “I have been in the camp since 2014. It was dif­fi­cult feed­ing my­self and the chil­dren. We were so hun­gry, and I was left with no op­tion than to give in to the de­mands of a cook who re­warded my ser­vices with food.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders has man­aged to get aid to a camp in Maiduguri, Nige­ria, but as many as 75,000 chil­dren will die in the next year as fam­i­lies seek­ing refuge from Boko Haram find famine-like con­di­tions.

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