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In Photos: On the Banks of Despair With Lake Chad’s Boko Haram Refugees

Boko Haram fighters are hiding on hundreds of small, inaccessible islands scattered across Lake Chad, forcing thousands to seek shelter in a refugee camp where living conditions are extreme.
Photo par Tomaso Clavarino

Hunted by a coalition of armies after brutally killing thousands of people in 2014, members of the Islamist militant group Boko Haram are now hiding on hundreds of small, inaccessible islands scattered across Lake Chad, a large and shallow body of water bordered by Chad, Niger, Cameroon, and Nigeria.

The lake, which provides water to more than 68 million people, is already losing vegetation and wildlife due to desertification. Now, in Chad, one of the poorest areas in the region, Boko Haram has started attacking neighboring villages, burning down houses, and jeopardizing communities already devastated by hunger, malnutrition, and a trade embargo with Nigeria.


In recent months, nearly 20,000 refugees and displaced people have fled northern Nigeria and Lake Chad islands occupied by Boko Haram, seeking shelter near the Chadian village of Bagasola on the banks of the lake. The UN's refugee agency, UNHCR, has opened a camp called Dar Es Salam to receive them, but the living conditions are extreme. In addition to food shortages and disease, the climate is often unbearable, with strong winds, sandstorms, and temperatures that can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius).

According to OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs), the crisis is not receiving the necessary support from donors and the international community. Not even a third of the emergency funds sought by the agency have been collected.

VICE News journeyed into Chadian territory, finding a fragile and unstable region on the banks of despair.

Related: The War Against Boko Haram (Full Length)

An army patrol in Ngouboua, a village that still seems like a ghost town after an attack that occurred in February.

A man in Ngouboua, where Boko Haram destroyed nearly two thirds of the houses in a February 13 raid.

Chadian soldiers during a patrol near Bagasola, on the shores of Lake Chad. The government in N'Djamena, the capital, has reinforced the military presence in the region and started to fight Boko Haram on Chadian territory.

Boko Haram militants, some of as young as 12 years old, surrendered to the Chadian army. They were kidnapped while studying in Nigeria.


A military briefing on the outskirts of Tchoukou Telia, a small village on Lake Chad attacked several times by Boko Haram. The last attack, a couple of weeks ago, left seven civilians dead.

Two young boys riding a motorbike in Tchoukou Telia.

The banks of Lake Chad are strewn with garbage. Pollution is one cause of the environmental crisis currently facing Africa's fourth-largest water basin.

In this part of the country, breeding cows and dromedaries — a type of camel — is the main economic activity. Many shepherds have been attacked by Boko Haram in recent months, and bows and arrows are often their only means of defense against the rifle-wielding militants.

In the early morning at the market in Bagasola, there used to be lots of fishermen selling their catch. Now, their boats are stuck on the banks of Lake Chad due to the threat of attacks by Boko Haram.

When a man leaves Bagasola for a while, it is a tradition to have a feast with his family. Here, a young boy has just killed the animal for the meal.

A football match before sunset in the Dar Es Salaam refugee camp.

A displaced woman from one of the islands in Lake Chad walks through the desert near the village of Tchoukou Telia. Thousands of Chadians have already fled from the region due to Boko Haram attacks.

A group of Nigerian women that fled violence in northern Nigeria gathers around a tent in the Dar Es Salaam refugee camp, 20 miles from the village of Bagasola. There are nearly 5,000 people in the camp, and the living conditions are extreme, with stiflingly hot temperatures and strong winds.


People from Forkouloum village during a distribution of aid from Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Boko Haram isn't the only threat facing in the region. Desertification has reduced the surface area of Lake Chad from approximately 25,000 square kilometers (9,600 square miles) to nearly 1,350 square kilometers (520 square miles).

Related: Defeating Boko Haram Has Less to Do with Guns Than You Might Think

All photos by Tomaso Clavarino.

Follow Tomaso Clavarino on Twitter: @BaKlaVaRhInO