- This is a translated version of Når terror rammer de fattigste
Fatime Jidda was taking care of her son at home in Baga Kawa, a village on the shores of Lake Chad in northeastern Nigeria. Her husband had just gone to work. It was completely ordinary January morning.
Then came Boko Haram. They robbed, raped, kidnapped. It was a massacre.
«They opened fire, shooting at everything that was around them. Men, women and children were killed,» says Jidda.
Jidda, 20, sits in a small tent covered with UNHCR plastic, talking about the day everything changed. How she managed to escape into the bush with her son. How they hid, walked, and slept for three days before reaching safety. Jidda was lucky, she escaped the extremists. But now she is a refugee in neighbouring Chad.
Lake Chad has long been an oasis for people in the arid Sahel belt. However, over the past fifty years, a huge percentage of the lake has disappeared. Given the extreme poverty, and now grotesque violence, the UN has ranked the situation as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.
Enormous suffering in Syria, Sudan and Yemen, as well as the drought in the Horn of Africa, has put added pressure on aid organisation budgets and efforts. That is why Norway, together with Germany, Nigeria and the UN agency OCHA, is organising a donor conference for the crisis in the four counties surrounding Lake Chad in Oslo in late February.
The population living around the lake – in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger and Chad – was already one of the most vulnerable in the world. Today, thousands of young girls have now been forced into marriage and sexual slavery by Boko Haram. Children are recruited to carry weapons and enlisted as suicide bombers to kill civilians. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has also documented that the extremist group is behind attacks against schools and religious institutions, sexual violence and brutal mass murder.
The UN Office believes Boko Haram is responsible for «extremely serious human rights violations.» The attacks have wreaked havoc on an entire region: large areas have been emptied of people. People have abandoned crops, livestock and fishing boats to flee the brutality in one of the most marginalised areas of the world.
In the four countries that surround the lake, some 3.5 million people have been displaced from their homes. Close to seven million are dependent on food aid. UN agencies speak of «famine-like conditions» in parts of the crisis’ epicenter in northeast Nigeria.
Altogether, 11 million people are now dependent on humanitarian aid in the area around Lake Chad.
Half a million malnourished
The UN car drives in the Sahel semi-desert along a bumpy path. Much of Lac, the border region that includes Chad's portion of the shore of Lake Chad, is a militarised zone. Immediately outside the zone are 350,000 people in need of humanitarian aid. Close to 130,000 of them are internally displaced who fled the Boko Haram attacks in Chad. In addition, Lac has taken in thousands of refugees from neighbouring Niger and Nigeria. The situation is critical, both for the displaced and the local population.
Ngarangou is located an hour's drive from Bol, the capital of Lac. When the Land Cruiser from the World Food Programme (WFP) arrives at the village «health clinic», a group of women is already waiting under a tree. They have come here to weigh, measure and see whether their children are growing the way they should. There are far too many who are not thriving.
According to UNICEF, 515,000 children suffer from severe acute malnutrition in the four countries bordering Lake Chad, «75,000 could die if steps are not taken immediately.»
Gana Kakani is 19 years old and five months pregnant. She carried her 10-month-old son Adam Abdallah for three hours to reach the mobile health clinic WFP has established in collaboration with the American organisation International Medical Corps (IMC). She and her son were also here two weeks ago. Both were malnourished.
The majority of the population of Lac lacks basic services and infrastructure. Simply moving around is difficult, including for aid organisations in white four-wheel drive vehicles. To reach the clinic in Ngarangou, Kakani left her home in the village of Brea Koura at five o'clock in the morning, to walk in the cool morning sun. She arrived well before her scheduled health examination.
It quickly becomes clear that Kakani will continue to need nutritional supplements. After the special measuring tape used to gauge the circumference of little Adam’s upper arm shows red, he was put on a scale. Despite receiving nutritional supplements at his last visit, the tests concluded that he too was still malnourished. When Bistandsaktuelt asks what the mother thinks about she and her son being malnourished, she replies: «We have no land to grow food.»
Kakani got married when she was fifteen years old. Her husband, Chau Brahim, is a marabout, a teacher at a Koran school, a position that provides the family with a small income. She smiles and laughs softly when Bistandsaktuelt asks her whether it isn’t hard to be pregnant and walk for six hours back and forth in one day while carrying her son:
«It is tiring. But I have no choice.»
Kakani sits with the other women in the sand under a tree. The sun is still high in the sky and it is too early for the women and their children to start for home. She opens one of the small daily ration packets with nutritional supplements she got from WFP. Her son eagerly grabs the packet and she helps him tear a small hole. When Bistandsaktuelt left Ngarangou little Adam was sitting in the shade, happily eating a «Plumpy Sup.»
Only 10 doctors
The trees look like grey dots in the scorched landscape. From a distance they create a greenish blanket of foliage. Up close, they are prickly scrub on a trunk, but at least they cast a shadow. Bistandsaktuelt has been on the road with WFP for an hour. In some places you can see Lake Chad before it disappears behind a sandy ridge. The village of Gali is located on a dry plain. The four-wheel drive almost gets stuck in the sand just before we turn in front of a low brick building.
Adam Abakar is sitting in a red washbasin – a plastic scale – hung from a tree. Although his mother is standing next to him, the seven-month-old boy is crying. Dozens of women and their children are sitting under a few trees, waiting their turn for health examinations.
In Lac, a region with just ten doctors serving a population of nearly half a million, IMC nurse Timon Doussikeo provides vital services to the population. His team comes to the village every fortnight. Because the situation is described as alarming, WFP believes that the roughly 3,500 people who use the village’s «health clinic» need close monitoring.
«This is a remote area. Around one hundred of the 638 children we have registered so far are malnourished. We send those who are severely acutely malnourished to the hospital in Bol. Those who are ‘only’ malnourished receive dietary supplements here at the clinic,» says Doussikeo.
Of the children Bistandsaktuelt observed undergoing a full examination in Gali, two had severe acute malnutrition. When Adam Abaka was last checked a month ago, he weighed 8.6 kg, a normal weight according to Doussikeo. His weight had now fallen to 7.3 kg. That means he must be taken to the hospital in Bol.
On the verge of disappearing?
Around 87 per cent of the population in Chad lives under the UN poverty line. With a food security score categorised as «alarming», the Global Hunger Index calculated by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) ranked Chad second to last out of 117 countries registered last year. The part of the country located in the Sahel region is particularly vulnerable.
This area is also the site of what once was one of Africa's largest water reservoirs, an oasis in the barren and dry Sahel. Today, Lake Chad – which has supported agriculture, livestock and fisheries for centuries – reportedly has shrunk to one-tenth of what it was in the 1960s. While there are seasonal variations in the lake's water level and scientists disagree whether the lake is actually shrinking, large irrigation projects, weak regulatory control and very little rain are some of the reasons why the livelihood of millions of people is at stake.
From the air, it is easy to see how the landscape is changing; places where there once was water, are now covered with sand. The vivid green colour visible from above is not lush vegetation but a green veil of algae covering the blue lake. When the area was under French control it was possible to travel by boat up the river Chari to N'Djamena, the capital. This is no longer possible.
The shrinking Lake Chad affects the lives of at least 17 million people in four countries – even more if the ripple effects throughout the Sahel belt are taken into account. One person who has witnessed the changes is Abdoulaye Mahamat, 58. A fisherman, Mahamat has made a living from the lake his whole life.
«A few years back it was full of boats here. They lay side by side along the beach,» says Mahamat, pointing to the few boats in layup along the waterfront in a neighborhood in Bol. Mahamat emphasised that due to Boko Haram’s rampages – in combination with the fact that large parts of the lake have been turned into a militarised, inaccessible zone in response to the insurgency – many have given up fishing.
«Limited access to good fishing means less fish and less income», says Mahamat.
Mahamat was 18 years old when he decided to become a fisherman like his father.
«The average depth of the lake was four metres then. Now it’s 1.5. Back then we got at least 10 kinds of fish in our nets. Now there are two, maybe three,» says Mahamat, relating that fishermen came from a number of countries to try their luck in Lake Chad when he was younger. «When the water level fell and the lake shrank, the fishermen disappeared one by one. The only ones left now are local, and their numbers are also declining. It’s a sad change,» says Mahamat, adding, «It’s not just that there are fewer fish. We also get a lot less fish in our nets.»
Speaking to Bistandsaktuelt, Abaka Mahamat Kaila, assistant director general of Sodelac, an agency under Chad's Ministry of Agriculture, explains that the lake has shrunk from 25,000 square kilometres fifty years ago to just over 2,500 square kilometres today. Many have pointed to the overuse of water resources and large irrigation projects built to supply industrial agriculture around the lake as some of the main reasons why Lake Chad is about to disappear. Kaila is dismissive of this explanation.
He believes climate change, which has brought significantly less rain throughout the Sahel belt, is the cause. «Many people are dependent on the lake and it is clear that this has put a lot of pressure on it. But neither it nor irrigation is causing the crisis. It has rained very little in past fifty years. If it continues, the lake will disappear completely,» says Kaila.
Born in a refugee camp
Although they are not far from the water’s edge, it is dry and oppressively hot. The wind blows now and then, whipping up small, cooling sandstorms before the heat resumes. A hundred men, women and children sit in the shade of a tree. Just steps from them, two other groups are doing the same. All of the groups are waiting for their monthly ration card from the World Food Programme (WFP). The only other sights punctuating the barren brown landscape surrounding them are white Land Cruisers and UN tents.
Around 6,000 refugees from Niger and Nigeria live in the Dar es Salaam refugee camp outside the small town of Baga Sola. All are displaced in Chad following the attacks by Boko Haram. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is responsible for safety and shelter, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) provides healthcare and schools, and the World Food Programme (WFP) ensures that the refugees receive food. WFP has decided to try a new distribution model in the camp – one ration coupon per month. The coupon enables refugees to obtain food from a local merchant with whom the UN organisation has an agreement.
Bistandsaktuelt meets Fatime Jidda while she waits her turn to receive a ration coupon for food. Nine-month-old Mohammat Goni, born in the family’s «tent» in the camp, is swaddled in a shawl on her back, shielded from the sun. The young mother of two says that life in the refugee camp is tough. She longs for a life with a certain sense of security, but that is on hold.
«We have almost nothing here. No money. Not enough clothes. Not a proper house,» she says.
Jidda exchanges the WFP food coupon for cooking oil, maize, broth, sugar, two tins of sardines, and a few tomatoes and onions. The coupon is worth CFA 6,000, or about NOK 90. When the next food distribution is held in thirty days, Jidda says she will prioritise a little differently and get more maize, oil and sugar.
Knows many who have been kidnapped
When the young mother of two was finished «shopping», Bistandsaktuelt was invited to visit the family in their tent. It is better to talk there than in the heat in front of everyone else. Here, Jidda told us about the events of that January day in 2015 that changed everything, including her three-day long escape in Nigeria and how she was reunited with her husband in a refugee camp in neighboring Chad few weeks later.
«I know of several people in my neighborhood who died, it was brutal. I also know of girls who have been kidnapped by Boko Haram. I am happy that I managed to hide from them,» says Jidda.
The massacre in Baga and 16 nearby villages was covered by the media throughout the world in January 2015. According to The Guardian, as many as 2,000 people may have been killed in the attack, which took place over several days. Although the numbers are unclear and Nigerian authorities have subsequently released much lower numbers, the attack is still one of the most violent Boko Haram has carried out. Houses were set on fire, and women and children were kidnapped.
After three days, Jidda and her son arrived in Maidiguri, the capital of Borno State. But she knew nothing about the fate of her husband, of whether he was alive or dead. «Many weeks passed before we were in contact again, by phone. By that time he was already here in the camp. He asked me to come to Chad. So I went,» says Jidda.
Jidda’s son Mohammat was born in the UNHCR tent in which we are sitting. She told us that it is painful to think that the nine-month-old boy will grow up in a camp for refugees. That he will start his education at a school run by an aid organisation. That he will not grow up in their homeland. «It’s hard to think that he might have to grow up here,» says Jidda.
The family lived a good life before the attacks, Jidda related. They lived in a brick house, her husband ran a small shop, they had enough money. She says she daydreams about going home again.
«I think of Nigeria every single day. As things now stand, we can’t go home, it's not safe. So we have no choice but to stay. My biggest dream is that there will be peace again, so that children can grow up in their homeland. There is no future here. We live like animals,» says Jidda.
With the threat of Boko Haram violence hanging over them, they have no other choice than to stay put. According to the UN Refugee Convention, people who are displaced outside their own countries have a number of rights. While Jidda and the others from Niger and Nigeria receive healthcare and education in the Dar es Salaam camp, thousands of internally displaced people – who live near the camp and fled the same threat – do not receive the same services.
The autumn 2015 attack by three Boko Haram suicide bombers on the local fish market in the small town of Baga Sola took place a few kilometers from the Dar es Salaam camp. At least 40 people were killed. Security is therefore a top priority for UN staff who work close to the militarised zone around Lake Chad.
Laotol Mekela is the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)’s protection officer in the Lac region. Seated at a desk in a container protected behind high walls, barbed wire and sandbags in one of the UN’s more remote stations, Mekele admits that it is a challenging situation when refugees, internally displaced persons and an extremely poor local population have to live close to each other in an area with very few resources.
«Differences are inevitable in this context,» says Mekela. «UNHCR has to adhere to its mandate, which is to protect refugees. We can’t offer locals the same as we offer refugees in a refugee camp. This gives rise to differences, and it is challenging. There is no doubt that the people who lived in this area before and those who are internally displaced are having a very tough time,» Mekela tells Bistandsaktuelt.
Witnessed the murder of her husband
A total of 4.3 million Chadians will be dependent on food aid in 2017 due to several different and partly overlapping crises. The combination of conflict, political violence and environmental changes has created an extremely difficult situation. In addition to the Boko Haram crisis, conflicts in neighbor countries Sudan and the Central African Republic have pushed the total population of refugees in Chad to 400,000. On top of this comes the almost 130,000 internally displaced persons in the Lac region. Most live in or near communities that themselves are some of the poorest and most vulnerable populations in the world.
The Melea camp is located just 25 kilometres from the Dar es Salaam camp for refugees. Some 2,000 internally displaced persons have settled here. Without plastic sheeting from UNHCR most live in small makeshift straw huts. They have not fled far, but very few were able to take their belongings with them when Boko Haram struck the islands at the very eastern end of Lake Chad.
«They kidnapped boys and girls alike.»
Fatime Alhadji, 35, and her family lived in Titimiron, a village on an island in the lake. The village did not have a school or health clinic, but as generations before them, they lived a hard but peaceful life. The men fished and the women tilled the land. The mother of six remembers all too well the morning Boko Haram came. She is quiet. Looking down at the sand, she said that her husband was killed in the attack. «I saw them cut his throat.»
Alhadji says she panicked and ran as fast as she could to the other side of the island with her children. There they boarded a flat-bottomed boat to cross over to the mainland. Then they walked for two days before they got to the area that has now become the Melea camp for internally displaced persons. Although it is located just 45 kilometres from Titimirom, the family does not yet dare to think of returning, nor do they have the option because most of the lake has been closed off by the Chadian army.
Alhadji’s brother-in-law, Mahamat Tchari, 48, spoke up, relating that Boko Haram came ashore during the night and attacked the village at dawn. Asked whether he knows how many insurgents attacked Titimirom that March day in 2015, he answers: «I don’t know. When you hear shots and see someone shoot in your direction, you don’t start counting how many there are. When I heard the shots and that they were shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ [God is great], I took off.»
He says the attackers emptied the village, taking equipment, animals and boats. They set several huts on fire. «All our belongings are gone,» says Tchari.
Before Boko Haram attacked the village, Tchari and his family had a fairly good life. Both Tchari and his deceased older brother had an income. They bought fish at a cheap price from local fishermen and transported it all the way across Lake Chad, selling it in markets in Nigeria. It was not a carefree life, but everything fell apart when Boko Haram landed on the tiny island of Titimirom. The ravages of the terrorist group coupled with the fear of new attacks and the fact that large parts of the lake are now a military zone have made it both dangerous and impossible to continue as a fishmonger. Finding another job in the Melea camp is impossible, forcing the extended family to survive on support from the World Food Programme (WFP). It’s a daily struggle.
Alhadji looks down, poking a bit in the sand. Surrounded by her six kids she is quite clear on how it is to be displaced in one of the most marginalised areas of the world's poorest countries: «What life? We have nothing.»