Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Tragedy of Refugees the past seven years, the militant group Boko Haram has set about destroying communities, schools and health facilities in northeast Nigeria and has used sexual violence and the kidnapping of women and girls to terrorize the population. At least 20,000 people have been killed, and an estimated 2.5 million people have been displaced.

Amid the carnage, communities have been unable to tend to their land and multiple harvests have failed. Hunger has taken over. Children and adults have wasted to death. The United Nations’ children’s agency UNICEF warned that 75,000 children could die this year without a major aid effort in northeast Nigeria. Aid has been slow to reach people in the region. Some Nigerians fear corrupt local officials are diverting resources from people in need. The international aid system was slow to recognize the scale of the crisis and has not yet cranked into full gear. Ongoing fighting has complicated the effort – the U.N. estimates that 2 million people remain inaccessible to aid agencies.

In Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, families continue to pour out of their destroyed homes and villages, seeking sanctuary, food and medical care. Maiduguri’s population has almost doubled in size to more than 2 million people in recent years. There are 11 official and unofficial camps for people who have been displaced across Maiduguri.  Even after they escaped fighting for the relative safety of the camps, the threat of violence and sexual assault continues to cast a long shadow over women’s lives. Most of the displacement camps are surrounded by the Nigerian military. Men carrying weapons are visible inside the camps, likely members of a civilian militia that is armed by authorities. People displaced from areas taken by Boko Haram have been met with suspicion in Maiduguri. Local authorities have openly fanned fears that the displaced population may have radicalized Boko Haram sympathizers in their midst. The militant group’s repeated use of women and girls as suicide bombers has roused the fears of the local population. Local officials describe women freed from Boko Haram control as a security risk, some claiming that is impossible to ensure that the camps for the displaced have not been “infiltrated” by “the wives of Boko Haram.” When people in Borno refer to “wives,” it is a euphemism for rape and sexual slavery. While it is possible that some women have voluntarily joined or married fighters, most survivors describe forced marriage and horrific sexual violence, including rapes by multiple men.

“Unspeakable things start happening to girls from the age of 12,” Amina, a 15-year-old girl from Bama who recently gave birth to her first child, said in a maternity clinic on the outskirts of Maiduguri. Women who became pregnant while in Boko Haram captivity have been particularly shunned by local communities.

Aisha, a mother of five, described fleeing her home in Mafa when Boko Haram militants attacked two years ago.
 “They came like wildfire to burn and loot our homes – they showed us no mercy, no mercy at all,” she says. “I picked up my children and ran and have been running since then.”

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