Nigeria: Displaced for Years in Borno State

Malik Samuel/MSF

In northeast Nigeria, hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by the ongoing conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian Armed Forces. Some have lived in temporary homes for years while others have been continually on the move. Each of them recounts a life of hardship while searching for a glimmer of hope. These are stories from people settled in the towns of Banisheikh and Pulka, in Borno State.

Life in Banisheikh

Four years ago, in the middle of conflict between the Nigerian Armed Forces and Boko Haram, 35-year-old Falmata left her home in Shetimari, Borno State and traveled to Banisheikh, a town an hour and a half by car to the west of Maiduguri, the state’s capital.

With a sigh, Falmata recalls the beginning of the trip that took her away from her village, where three of her relatives—among many others—were killed by Boko Haram. Fighters from the group would arrive on motorbikes to steal townspeople’s belongings. Girls and women disappeared and were subjected to forced marriages.

According to Falmata, “By the time we left, we had suffered a lot. We were very scared. It took us two days to reach here by foot. We slept overnight in the bush. Some of the people we traveled with passed away on the journey. Some of our children died of thirst, as we didn’t have any water.”

Falmata, who had been a farmer previously, has been moving from one camp to another in Banisheikh with her husband and seven children. “We don’t think it is safe enough to go back there yet,” she says. Though Falmata left her village to seek a better future, she remains stranded in Banisheikh, uprooted by the raging conflict between Boko Haram and Nigerian forces.

The ongoing fighting has left nearly two million people displaced in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, with several hundred thousand refugees settled around the Lake Chad region, including in Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. As Nigerian forces have expelled Boko Haram from territories, the militant group has spread its activities to surrounding countries. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the conflict has impacted 17.5 million people in the Lake Chad Basin. With no end to the fighting in sight, refugees have struggled to adapt to semi-permanent life in the camps. This offers relative stability, but there is little promise of prosperity.

The displaced community has grown over time. Most of the refugees in Banisheikh now live in five settlements, with shelters built of flimsy plastic sheeting supported by pieces of wood and stalk. These tiny spaces become terribly hot in the high temperatures of Borno’s summer, and during rainstorms, strong winds can rip holes in the plastic sheeting, causing leaks. Furthermore, termites often infest the timber frames, causing shelters to collapse. “There is not much to do here,” Falmata says. “There are people from different areas. Almost all of us have been displaced for a very long time already.”

Unlike many roads across Borno, where movements can only be made with military escorts, traffic along the road from Banisheikh to Maiduguri has long been re-established, but numerous checkpoints are a reminder of the volatility of a place that is a recurrent crossing point for insurgents coming from the Alagarno and Sambisa forests in the southern part of Borno State, heading north to Niger.

Life in Pulka

Though the Nigerian Armed Forces have retaken control of some towns in Borno State over the past few months, continuing clashes between the army and Boko Haram are creating constant waves of population movement. People are frequently forced to leave rural villages where they can’t access aid, for larger towns where humanitarian agencies can be found. They often have no choice but to separate from relatives in the process.

The town of Pulka, close to the border with Cameroon, has become a common destination for displaced people. With new arrivals daily or weekly, Pulka has seen its population increase considerably since the beginning of the year. Currently, between 60,000 and 70,000 people now inhabit the town, and water shortages and insufficient shelter have become major concerns for humanitarian organizations.

“When people arrive, they have very few belongings. The vast majority are women and children up to 15 years of age, as well as some elderly people,” says Sabina Mutindi, medical program manager of Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Pulka. With many dying in the conflict and others joining Boko Haram, “the young generation of men is completely missing,” she says.  “We see every possible medical case. The patients are hypoglycemic and exposed to a harsh environment, so they have respiratory tract infections, ulcers, and high blood pressure.”

Musa, a 75-year-old man from the Nigerian town of Kirawa, speaks with grief after having lost most of his food, money, and belongings. “Before the conflict, I had a good life, but now I don’t know whether tomorrow there might be another bomb blast. I am just surviving. I can’t work, I can’t move … All I can do is sleep.” Five months ago, the military brought him and his family from Kirawa to Pulka. This was the “only available option,” he says. “But what kind of life is this?” he asks, pointing at a plastic sheet on the ground where he sleeps.

Due to deteriorating conditions in the camps in Cameroon, the number of Nigerian refugees returning to Pulka has increased since May. Once back, however, they often find life to be just as difficult. “We were told that we would be brought back to Nigeria, so we decided to come on our own. I decided to come to Pulka because it is my hometown,” says Adama, a 25-year-old mother of four­ who left Minawao camp in Cameroon in early May after two years. “In Minawao, life was not easy. We used to sleep in an open space. Food was not always available. You’d be lucky to have something to eat every day. The information we received was that things in Pulka were better,” she says.

The return to Nigeria proved difficult. While crossing a river, Adama’s boat capsized and some of her companions died. After finally arriving in Pulka, Adama discovered that the food, cattle stock, and other belongings she had left in a house she had been renting had disappeared. She moved into a compound where MSF is running a hospital, and which is currently hosting around 2,000 displaced people and returnees who have not yet been given tents. “People need to assist us with aid,” says Adama.

MSF has been working in Maiduguri, Borno State in Nigeria since August 2014. The organization currently manages 11 medical facilities in six towns in Borno (Maiduguri, Ngala, Monguno, Gwoza, Pulka and Banisheikh) and regularly visits another five towns: Bama, Banki, Dikwa, Damasak, and Rann.