From Nigeria to Cameroon: A Journey Through Hunger

Dzam Dzam and her son. Photo: UNICEF/Minville

When death is chasing you and your family, you got to run to stay alive. Dam-Dam escaped Boko Haram but new dangers were waiting around the corner.

The attack from Boko Haram was brutal and unexpected. “I saw shadows in my backyard. And then everything collapsed.”

It happened in 2015 in the village of Boza, in Nigeria’s Borno state, where Dam-Dam, her husband and their three daughters and one boy were living since they migrated from neighbouring Cameroon a few years before, seeking a better life in a region with more work opportunities. “Life was good there’, she recalls. ‘Until that day when war found us.”

It was in the hours between light turn into darkness. Dam-Dam’s husband was taking a shower behind the house. She was in her kitchen with her children.

Suddenly, a group of gunmen entered her backyard, and brought her husband and son outside the house. She heard gunshots: they were dead. For minutes which felt like hours, she hid with her two children under a table. The insurgents left the compound and like a miracle they did not storm the house.

“I grabbed my three daughters and escaped, immediately’, said Dam-Dam. ‘We started running, running, without turning back.”

On the road, Dam-Dam and her daughters didn’t have any food or water, and neither had anyone else. “We spent seven days on the road, she said. We saw many people dying from hunger… Including two of my daughters”

Dam Dam’s two-year-old and three-year-old died of starvation during the journey.

“They died before we reached the border,” said Dzam-Dzam, her eyes filled with deep sadness. ‘But I just had to keep walking. We were too weak to bury them, and we had no time for mourning.”

After seven days of walking, determined to save her last living daughter, Habsit, five-year-old, Dam-Dam reached the town of Mokolo, a safe haven where hundreds of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) were taken in by the communities.

There, she immediately took her daughter to the community health centre, where UNICEF and its partners are running programmes to combat a severe nutrition crisis. 2.2% of all children in the Far North Region of Cameroon are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. The caseload is beyond the emergency threshold.

This part of Cameroon is dry, blazingly hot and clean water is scarce- even before the Boko Haram conflict started. The massive influx of IDPs fleeing violence — more than 190,000 according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees — has placed additional pressure on limited resources. It is estimated that more than 65,000 children are at risk of dying from hunger.

“Our response includes identifying and providing treatment for severely malnourished through partners such as International Medical Corps (IMC) and the French Red Cross. We are also training health workerson nutritional care’, said Dr Jean-Michel Goman, Nutrition Specialist for UNICEF.

After a few visits to the health centre, Dam-Dam’s daughter started gaining weight. She is now out of danger. “I would like to tell other mothers who are suffering in Nigeria or on the move to come here”, said Dam-Dam. “Here, people really take care of children. Look at my daughter, she is in good health now.”

Recent security improvements now allow UNICEF’s teams to reach vulnerable people in previously cut off areas. In September this year, a large nutrition survey (SMART survey) will cover, for the first time since the beginning of the Boko Haram crisis in Cameroon, the totality of the Far North Region of the country.

“Every day, new needs are brought to light’, said Dr Goman. ‘We are scaling up our response as much as our budgets allows us, to do whatever we can to ensure not a single child is left behind.”

By Alexandre Brecher, UNICEF Cameroon