Violent attacks carried out by members of the Boko Haram rebel group have resulted in unspeakable atrocities in north-eastern Nigeria. Children have seen their loved ones killed and watched as their homes and schools have been damaged or destroyed. Some have walked for days to escape, fleeing with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
These are the stories of children and women who have survived the conflict and sought refuge in encampments in Yola, Adamawa State. They are among more than 1.2 million people uprooted by the violence who remain internally displaced.
(Right) Rose Zeeharrah watched while members of Boko Haram attacked her village and began killing the men who lived there — including her husband. As she fled into the bush with her nine children, the last sight she saw was her home being set ablaze. “We didn’t bring anything with us. We just ran,” she said. Her 2-year-old son passed away while they were in hiding. “He died from the stress,” Rose explained. Now she and her children are living in a camp for internally displaced people in Yola, Adamawa State. Even though she knows she has lost her home and cattle, Rose longs to go home. “I want to go home and harvest so we can eat,” she said.
John, 17, was getting ready for church when members of Boko Haram attacked his village. He had already lost his father, a carpenter, and his mother to illness before the violence reached his hometown. Along with his aunt, John managed to escape to a displacement camp in Yola. What he misses most is his father’s house, his village and the memories he made there. “I want to go back there with my aunt,” he said. John is attending a UNICEF-supported school in the camp and is determined to become a pastor and have a positive impact on his community. “I want to work for God,” he said.
Evelyn was attending church when members of Boko Haram entered her hometown, in the Local Government Area of Michika, and began shooting and killing people, and kidnapping some of the girls from the community. Evelyn grabbed her 1-year-old daughter, Rose (above), and ran, but her 5-year-old son, Wisdom, was in another part of the church made festive with special decorations for children. “It was children’s day,” Evelyn explained in a soft voice. She hid in the mountains with other children, women and men from her community. One week later, she was reunited with Wisdom, whom members of the church brought to her, but she has not seen or heard from her husband since the attack. “I don’t know if he is alive or dead,” she said. With only the clothes on their backs, she and her children stayed in the mountains for one month, barely surviving on berries and swamp water, before making the journey to Yola, where they now live in a camp for displaced people. Evelyn, who studied economics before she married, longs to return home, but she knows it will be difficult. “They have taken everything,” she said.
When members of Boko Haram attacked 13-year-old Aisha’s hometown — Gwozo, in Borno State — they killed her father and abducted her mother. She managed to escape, fleeing to a displacement camp in Yola with an older sister. The two continue to look after each other. Aisha has received UNICEF-supported counselling. Now strong enough to return to learning, she attends a UNICEF-supported school, which operates in two shifts in the camp to accommodate more children. “I enjoy the school here,” she said, “but I want to go back to my village.”
When Alia, 10, still lived in her hometown, in the Local Government Area of Michika, word came on a Friday that members of Boko Haram had attacked neighbouring villages. The next day, the men arrived in her town. Her father was killed. Alia, together with her mother and other family members, managed to flee to the town of Mubi, leaving all their belongings behind, but three months later, that town also came under attack. They then fled across the border to neighbouring Cameroon before slowly making their way back to Nigeria and ending up in a displacement camp in Yola, where Alia is attending a UNICEF-supported school. Her mother suffered from high blood pressure and diabetes before the attacks, and now she is very sick, adding to Alia’s worries. Alia misses her father and her friends, and she is scared that attacks will occur again, but she refuses to give up hope. “I want to be a nurse,” she said. “I want to help people.”
A few months back, members of Boko Haram arrived in Lydia James’s hometown as her husband set out to visit his mother and take food to her. They tied him up, dragged him beneath a tree and shot him before turning their sights on Lydia’s house. She and her nine children ran for their lives. “I ask God to help me so I can take care of the children,” she said. Lydia now shares a cramped dormitory with 78 other women and children in a camp for internally displaced people, in Yola.
Maryamu Yakudu normally would have been in church when members of Boko Haram attacked her hometown, in the Local Government Area of Michika, but she was home sick that day. When she heard gunshots, she grabbed her daughter, 1-year-old Hyladan Yakudu, and ran. She has not seen her husband since and fears the worst. Her mother, who was too frail to run, remained in the village. “I just brought my one wrapper — nothing else,” says Maryamu. She longs to return home, as soon as it is safe — even though she knows there is little to which to return. “There is nothing in our house,” she said. “They took it all. We had a motorcycle and many cows. It’s all gone.”
A few years ago, Samson, 16, lost his father, who was a member of government forces fighting against Boko Haram. When the news reached his mother, the shock was too much for her to handle — she became ill, and shortly after, she passed away, leaving Samson to be cared for by his grandmother. But the violence would soon catch up with Samson again. A few months ago, the church in his home village, in the Local Government Area of Michika, was attacked. Many of the men were killed, while women and children fled in panic. “We just started running,” recalled Samson. He and his grandmother arrived at a displacement camp in Yola, where Samson now attends a UNICEF-supported school, but he dreams of going home. “I miss the house and all the people in the community, and I miss playing football with my friends,” he said. He also misses feeling safe. Samson already knows that he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I want to be a soldier,” he said.
Two years ago, Hajja Bello was shopping in a marketplace in the village of Dagu, in Borno State, when members of Boko Haram attacked. “It was a Sunday morning, and they assembled everyone and then separated the women from the men,” she recalled. “They shot the husbands before our eyes.” She managed to escape with all five of her children, but she lost five relatives that day, including a brother and four half-brothers. With the support of UNICEF and partners, her children are attending school in the camp, but she misses everything about home — the farm, her neighbours, the marketplace and the other women there with whom she used to chat. “I just want this to end so I can go back,” she said.
“When the shooting started, we ran in panic into the mountains,” remembered Lydia John, 15, about the day members of Boko Haram attacked her village, Gidel in the Local Government Area of Michika. Residents could see their homes being burned and schools being damaged from the mountains, where they remained trapped for two weeks, occasionally using the cover of night to gather a bit of food. After they managed to leave, they walked for seven straight days to reach the town of Mubi and eventually made it to Yola, where Lydia now lives in a camp for internally displaced people. She misses being home on her family’s farm, where there was plenty to eat, and like any adolescent, she misses her friends, who have been scattered across the country, with some fleeing to Abuja, the capital; six of her friends remain missing. Like so many others in the camp, she has lost loved ones in the violence; her uncle and cousin were killed during the attack on her village. “I always feel scared when I think of what happened,” she said. Lydia is attending school every day in Yola and wants to be a doctor. “I want to help my community,” she explained. But then the worry returns. With the family’s farm lost and their animals, including sheep, stolen or slaughtered, she is unsure how she, her parents and eight siblings will have enough to survive. “It’s not only what we will eat — but if all of that is lost, how will we have enough money for me to go to school?” she asked.
Salamatu Chinaypi used to sell food in a local market to supplement the income her family earned from their farm — helping feed her nine children and send them all to school. But that, along with the family’s home and some of their loved ones, was all lost when members of Boko Haram attacked Salamatu’s hometown, Askira Uba, in Borno State. They separated the men from the women and then began killing the men, including Salamatu’s brother. “That’s when everyone started running,” she said. She and a surviving brother began to flee, but a shot rang out, and he, too, was killed. “They burned our houses. There is nothing left,” she said. She, her husband and their children managed to escape, and it took them three weeks and four days to reach Yola, where they now live in a camp for internally displaced people. “We came barefooted,” she said. “We could bring nothing with us.”
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