13-year-old Hadja was at school, when Boko Haram insurgents attacked the city of Damassack in northern Nigeria. Within minutes, and in terror, her school had emptied as everyone scrambled to find somewhere safe to hide.
Chaos and panic followed the attack. Damassack’s residents fled en masse, and within seconds families had been split. “Going back home to find my parents had simply become too dangerous,” remembers Hadja. She joined the tens of thousands of people who fled Damassack and headed with them for the vague safety of the border and beyond that, Niger.
It was an incredibly dangerous journey. Hadja had to cross the Komandougou river, the imposing border between the two countries. “I knew how to swim and that’s what saved me,” she recalls. Others were not so lucky.
“Around me there were people desperately trying to cross over, but they drowned and died because they did not know how to (swim).”
Safe but alone
Hadja made it across the river to Diffa in south-east Niger. Diffa is one of the poorest parts of the world. But, because of the relentless violence of Boko Haram, it has now become a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees from north-east Nigeria.
“When I arrived in Niger, I felt safe. But without my parents I feel alone,” says Hadja.
When she reached Niger, she was picked up by local authorities and trucked to a camp at a place called Gagamari. It was there, as she was still coming to terms with what had happened back home, that she caught her first lucky break for a long time. She met a neighbour from Damassack, a kindly woman who took her under her wing. “That’s when I met my guardian,” she says.
Hadja has not heard of her parents since she was forced to flee her home, but she is keeping her hopes up. “Yesterday, a friend of mine who has also lost track of her family like me found her mother here. This makes me optimistic.”
Childhood at risk
Many children in Gagamari have, like Hadja, been separated from their families. Many also witnessed unspeakable acts of violence, leaving them deeply traumatized and making them especially vulnerable to further forms of abuses.
“Children are always the most vulnerable in emergency situations,” says Viviane Van Steirteghem, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative in Niger. “They may be victims of violence, exploitation, disease and negligence.”
Humanitarian groups are setting up ways of identifying unaccompanied children to make sure they are supported and protected. Once identified and registered, they are supported by local authorities and child-protection organizations. Specialized organizations also help them to search for their families.
“It’s particularly challenging to respond here in Diffa, where displaced people are settled on many sites, including on the islands of Lake Chad some of which are difficult to access,” says UNICEF’s Van Steirteghem.
UNICEF has a mobile psychosocial support project that visits children in Gagamari and on the islands of Lake Chad. The project supports about 15,000 children.
Appalling living conditions
“The first night, I slept in the courtyard of the house belonging to the local village chief with my guardian and others,” says Hadja. “But the next day, we got a tent where I now sleep alongside 30 people, including my guardian and her children.”
Living conditions for the refugees are deplorable and they are getting worse. Many people can’t find any room in a tent and are forced to sleep outdoors, or under improvised shelters.
Most of those who, like Hadja, managed to escape attacks by the extremist militants have horrifying tales to tell. Zara, Hamadou, Haoua and Hajyia have witnessed immense suffering.
Nearly 1 million people have been displaced by the insurgency within Nigeria. The increasingly frequent attacks have also forced an estimated 214,000 people to seek safety in neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Since November, the number of people crossing the border into Diffa has increased dramatically. The region is now home to more than 100,000 displaced people – more than half of them children.
As the violence has increased in the past weeks, and the refugee flows continue unabated, humanitarian teams now fear that their resources, and those of host communities, will be stretched to breaking point.
“There is an urgent need to strengthen the volume of assistance for displaced people in Diffa to preserve their dignity and to prevent them from becoming even more vulnerable,” says Dieudonné Bamouni, the Head of OCHA’s Niger Office. “People are particularly in need of more food, health care, water, access to hygiene and sanitation, and access to education and protection services.”