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'It's Like Being Blind and Deaf': We Spoke to Some of the Nigerians Displaced by Boko Haram

The massacre at Baga was only the latest in a long line of Boko Haram atrocities, and the situation for the displaced survivors is getting worse.

by Sally Hayden
Jan 16 2015, 11:40am

Image via AP/Jossy Ola

Alagimodu has one date imprinted on his memory: August 5, 2014. That's the day that he ran from his village, rushing under foliage and through bush, abandoning his wife and children on the way. "I don't know where they are now," he told VICE News. "There is not any communication, not any information."

He made his way to Yola, the capital of Adamawa state, northern Nigeria, where he found refuge in a government camp for internally displaced people. Along with 15,000 others currently residing in the camp, he lives a precarious existence, where battles for medicine, detergent, and even food are never-ending, but the risk is minimal compared to what's facing him if he attempts to return home.

Alagimodu is one of 1.5 million Nigerians who have fled from Boko Haram and the increasingly horrific atrocities that they have committed in northeastern Nigeria. The most recent attack on the town of Baga and military base there could have resulted in hundreds — if not thousands — of deaths.

A new set of satellite images, released by Amnesty International, have provided visual evidence of the scale of the ruination and massacre. Taken by a private company called "Digital Globe," these indicate that large portions of Baga have been razed to the ground since the militant group took control of the border region last week. 

The images show the towns of Baga and neighboring Doron Baga, in which 3,700 structures can be identified as either damaged or completely destroyed, and healthy vegetation is colored red.

Satellite image of the decimation in Baga. Photo via Amnesty International.

Baga escapees described a scene of chaos, where dead bodies littered the streets. Some alleged that Boko Haram militants were hiding in trees in the surrounding forest, waiting to ambush those who attempted to flee.

After news of the capture of the multinational military base and subsequent massacre broke, local officials and international news outlets scrambled to find a conclusive figure for the fatalities. The Ministry of Defense put it as 150, while a local official claimed 2,000 people had died. However, verifying information from out of the region is incredibly difficult, something that VICE News highlighted when reports of the killings began emerging last week. In the preceding months Boko Haram had steadily been destroying phone lines and communications infrastructure in the area, resulting in a catastrophe that may never be qualified in numbers.

Gruesome reports emerge of new Boko Haram massacre in northern Nigeria. Read more here.

The Baga attack is just the latest in an increasingly violent six-year terror campaign by the militant Islamic group, whose name is often translated as "Western education is forbidden." As the conflict has rapidly intensified over the last six months, the humanitarian situation for the displaced has begun to worsen.

Boko Haram were the deadliest non-state actor on the African continent in 2014, and the group was responsible for almost one third of all civilian fatalities in the whole of Africa: 3,428 in total. They are also believed to be behind a series of suicide bombings in towns and cities across northern Nigeria — a strategy that has created an increasingly unstable and anxious atmosphere. And 27.1 percent of Africa's "remote-violence related fatalities" — deaths caused by bombs and explosives — happened in Nigeria in 2014.

Sarah Ndikumana, International Rescue Committee's Nigerian country director, told VICE News that NGOs still operative in the northeast are having a very difficult time trying to keep up with the need for care. She described the "scattering" that occurs when Boko Haram enters a village and residents flee, some too frantic to note where their children are, or whether they're following.

"Some will get a few of their cooking pots and a little bit of money, but some are lucky if they have a change of clothes," she said. "And lots of people get separated, they're fleeing in such a panic. We have a lot of children who are unaccompanied. We have a lot of parents who say they can't find their children."

Ndikumana said that the distance that individuals or families have managed to put between themselves and the danger depends completely on their resources. "They went as far as they could get and the wealthier with more access, more family and friends got further and further away. They went to Abuja or other big cities, and the people who were poor to begin with — the farmers and the small merchants — they only went as far as they could get with whatever they had at the moment they fled."

"A lot of people," she said, "flee only as far as the next safe place." With Boko Haram's now constant territorial advances Ndikumana said that many of the displaced have been forced to move again and again and again.

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is currently the only international NGO with a consistent presence in Borno State, and it has had a base in Maiduguri since August 2014. MSF reports that as many as 5,000 survivors of the recent Baga massacre are currently staying in a camp there called "Teacher Village." Some Baga escapees remain hiding in the bush, and authorities have reportedly sent transport to attempt to bring them to the city.

Life with Boko Haram: The escapees speak out. Read more here.

In Adamawa, where the International Rescue Committee works, there are some camps for the displaced, mainly run by the government's National Emergency Management Agency. However, Ndikumana said that many people aren't helped by the camps, but by the "goodness of strangers." She explained: "In some cases it's just people who will open up a compound they have and let people who are total strangers sleep there, gather there, enter and use their toilets and their kitchens to help them out."

She described groups of villagers squatting, forced to recreate their community in a church ground, or in a school compound "where there's nothing" — where sanitation is poor, food is lacking, and hope is non-existent.

"Everyone's got a dramatic and different story of how they fled and the road they took and how far they walked and who they were with and all these sorts of things," Ndikumana said, adding: "They all want to go home and as soon as they can they will."

She also spoke of the lack of international attention because of the "bad timing" that surrounded this crisis — occurring at a period when there were so many other disasters that required the world's attention. She then told a story of a donor from Niger who visited northern Nigeria recently. "He said that outside Ebola this is the only acute emergency crisis that's happening in West Africa, and so few people hear about it. Having someone from outside the country come in and say that seemed more significant to me," she said. When asked whether she agreed with the donor's estimation, Ndikumana immediately replied: "Yes. Yes I do."

* * *

On Wednesday a Nigerian woman — who gave her name as Peshan Filia — cried down the phone as she told VICE News she had seen three children die that morning. "There are many problems," she pronounced emphatically. "Many, many problems. No hope. No food."

Filia has been in a camp in Yola since the start of January. "You should see our children," she said, as she began to wail again. "Our place is very clumsy. No room, no toilet, no everything. Our children are dead. This is very dangerous."

Filia said that she ran for three days before she arrived in her current location, exchanging fears of violence for worries about cholera and disease. "I came to this place because of Boko Haram."

* * *

President Goodluck Jonathan and the Nigerian military have been heavily criticized for failing to act to defend their citizens. Jonathan has been accused of greatly downplaying and even ignoring the violence in the northeast in favor of his ambitions of being re-elected in next month's election. On Thursday he made his first visit to Maiduguri since March 2013. On Friday, Chad's parliament voted 150 to 0 to send an unspecified number of troops into both Cameroon and Nigeria to help in the fight against Boko Haram.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian military have been accused of committing atrocities of their own. A letter allegedly from Boko Haram, sent to a government official in August 2011, claimed that the reasoning behind the group's use of violence stemmed from the government and military abuses that they had been subjected to. Last year the Nigerian military tied with South Sudan as the most violent government force in Africa and 600 Nigerian civilians died at their hands.

They have also been accused of attempting to silence the press. In a move that was seen as a warning by local media, and condemned as censorship by members of the international community, the Nigerian army raided newspaper depots in June last year, following an international outcry over the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls. Analysts have suggested that citizens in northern Nigeria are trapped between two unappealing forces — "a plague on both your houses," is how one former diplomat described it to VICE News.

One of the reasons that Boko Haram has gained recruits and territory so quickly appears to be the lack of development and opportunities that exist in northeastern Nigeria. Sadly, the devastation it has caused suggests that this turn towards conflict and terrorism could persist. Ruminating on the longer term impacts of Boko Haram's actions, Ndikumana said that even if the militant group loses power, the impacts of the conflict will be far from over. 

"People lost things. Villages were burned. Houses have been destroyed, people have lost all of their assets, their farms have gone to squalor and they have to be completely re-prepared for planting. Merchants lost their shops.

"Everybody's just lost all of their livelihoods, and their houses, and so I think getting these people — who already had next to nothing — back, and getting them re-established will be a big challenge. "

Ndikumana added: "We need to be planning ahead because we don't know what's going to happen. Nobody can predict the future and people need support right now, it's been that way for quite a while."

* * *

Alagimodu has now been nominated to a camp leadership position, a responsibility that sees him care for the needs of many of the other displaced people. But he can't care for his own family, who remain missing. "I feel deaf and blind," is how he described it. "You can't see anything." 

In the camps, he said, groups of people will gather around a newspaper, desperate for knowledge but unsure what to believe. Alagimodu told VICE News that personally he trusts in the federal government, who he believes are taking serious action. "Maybe some Boko Haram has been captured by Nigerian armies," he speculated. "Maybe very soon we're going back to our villages."

In the meantime, he said that those who have survived the onslaught are supporting each other. "We have become brothers and sisters, simply because we are facing the same challenges of Boko Haram. No differences — religious or ethnic or partisan — we are facing the same challenges. That is why we have become brothers and sisters looking for peace."

Young girl reportedly used as suicide bomber in latest horrific attack in Nigeria. Read more here.

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd