On the eve of World Humanitarian Day, UNICEF worker Gerida Birukila reflects on the 28 July attack on a humanitarian convoy in Borno state, northeast Nigeria
I was tired, but feeling upbeat. Slightly high on the sugar rush from the dried mangoes a colleague had shared with me in the car – the first thing I had had time to eat all day – I was going over in my head all we had managed to achieve during our busy day in the beleaguered town of Bama.
An explosion suddenly filled the air with smoke and gunfire erupted, waves of bullets slamming into our car. Thud, thud, thud – bullets were hitting the window beside my head, the door I had been leaning against.
Our vehicle was armoured, resisting round after round, and although the windows shattered, they remained intact. I ducked, joining my colleague on the floor of the car as the intense gunfire continued. We held hands. And I prayed.
The gunfire shredded our tyres and damaged our engine, but our driver accelerated, struggling to keep the vehicle on the road and to get us away from the ambush as quickly as he could. We passed a military vehicle that had been ahead of us and had engaged our attackers. Some of the soldiers we could clearly see were injured.
We had managed to leave the battle behind us, but after about a kilometre, smoke pouring out of its engine, our vehicle gave out, coming to a complete stop. We radioed the other UNICEF vehicle, which had been behind us in the convoy, to ask them to pick us up. It was not the driver who responded, as we had expected, and when they stopped for us, we saw why. He was slumped in the back of the vehicle, bleeding profusely. Another colleague had taken the wheel. We piled in as quickly as we could, filling every space possible in the vehicle and abandoning our own.
The tires had also been shot out on this vehicle and its engine also damaged, but it got us further, to the town of Konduga several kilometres away. Nigerian military vehicles raced in the opposite direction as we drove, hurrying to do battle with the group that had ambushed us.
No day is ever “normal” or “ordinary” up here. Especially as we have gradually started to gain access to parts of Borno state that have been cut off from all assistance for years under the control of Boko Haram. As we venture out to these communities we find people suffering as I have never seen before. The brutal conflict in northeast Nigeria has left them hungry and ailing, without access to clean water or medical care. Every day, we have been trying to reach as many of these people and communities as we can, knowing a single day can mean the difference between life and death for a malnourished or sick child.
We work with partners on the ground, who take care of basic medical treatment and treat children for malnutrition, give vaccines, dig boreholes and build latrines. We organize, train and set up systems so that we can multiply the effect of the work we do, to reach more people.
My day in Bama, where 25,000 traumatised people have sought relative safety and where conditions are slowly improving, had been spent working with community mobilizers who screen children for malnutrition and make sure pregnant women are given antenatal care and that children get life-saving vaccinations. My other UNICEF colleagues had been working on health and nutrition, water and sanitation, and it had been gratifying to see the systems develop and so many more people getting better quality assistance. As we had gathered to get into our vehicles for the drive from Bama back to our base in the town of Maiduguri, we had agreed it had been a good day. But it was to turn out a far less “normal” day than others.
As soon as our damaged vehicle limped into the town of Konduga an ambulance was summoned. The colleague who had taken the wheel from our injured driver is a medical doctor and he now took over the care of our driver, accompanying him in the ambulance back to Maiduguri. Under such heavy fire, the glass of the driver’s side window had eventually broken and several pieces of glass had pierced his face.
We waited in Konduga for the others who had been in the convoy—we had all left Bama together and now, over the next 40 agonizing minutes, they also joined us in Konduga; we hugged as they arrived. The fighting had continued and several of the cars, like ours, had been abandoned, but fortunately everyone was accounted for and nobody had been killed. Had it not been for the armoured vehicles, it is likely none of us would have survived.
Everyone had stayed remarkably calm during the attack–the injured UNICEF driver had carried on driving until the vehicle was out of danger, doubtless saving the lives of everyone in the vehicle, before he stopped to give up the wheel. We were shaken, indeed, and I am sure I am not the only one to have quietly wept at home that night. It takes time to really sink in how close we came to death and we are all grateful to have made it out of the ambush alive. And with that gratitude for our lives, we are all even more determined to carry on reaching those who need our help.
The UNICEF driver is recovering from his injuries and surgery. UNICEF teams remain on the ground and continue to deliver assistance.