Life could not have been much better for Halima. Newly married, she had been showered with gifts of colourful wraps and pots and pans for evening meals with family and friends. She was also expecting her first baby. But then the shots rang out, and Halima’s world shattered. Then, last October, Boko Haram attacked Halima’s town – Gwoza, in Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria.
“I was about to cook dinner when they came,” says Halima, who is 26. They had just celebrated the Muslim holy period of Eid-el-Kabir when their community was overrun.
“We were at home, and they just came in shooting,” recalls Halima. “They killed a lot of men.”
Halima and some of the other women, men and children managed to flee and eventually made it all the way to the capital, Abuja.
Here in Abuja, Halima and many others live in makeshift shacks and half-finished construction sites with little else than what is provided by strangers.
In early March, Halima awoke in the dark of night to shouting and fear of infiltration from Boko Haram. Confusion set in, and shots rang out. She was seven months pregnant.
“People just started running. I ran and I fell on my stomach,” says Halima, whose face is still bruised from the fall. She was taken to hospital, but it was too late. She lost the baby. “It was a little boy.”
Halima’s story is all too familiar to thousands of families who have fled north-eastern Nigeria because of deadly attacks by Boko Haram that have affected Christian and Muslim communities alike. Around 1.2 million people have been internally displaced from the violence, most of them women and children. Around 200,000 others have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and the Niger.
UNICEF and partners are working with the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) and others to provide life-saving support for some of those who have fled – often with only the clothes on their backs. Money, motorcycles, cattle and homes are among the missing possessions – while hundreds of schools across the north-east have been damaged or destroyed.
UNICEF is helping to provide educational material, access to clean water, vaccinations, medical supplies and psycho-social counselling for thousands of children, many of whom have seen parents and other loved ones killed, had friends abducted, experienced horrific violence and sexual abuse.
“Every child has a story to tell,” says Gerida Burikila, with UNICEF’s office in Maiduguri, Borno State. “Some children are so traumatized they cannot speak.”
In Yola, in the State of Adamawa, thousands are living in camps or in host communities in sweltering heat and with similar, chilling accounts.
Evelyn (23) and her two children are among them. Evelyn was attending church in Michika when members of Boko Haram entered on Sunday 7 September and started shooting, killing men, and snatching girls. Evelyn grabbed her 1-year-old daughter Rose and ran, but her 5-year-old son Wisdom was in another part of the church playing.
“It was children’s day,” Evelyn explains in a soft voice, sitting in a cramped dormitory that now hosts 78 women and children. She fled into the mountains with the others. One week later, she was reunited with her son, but Evelyn has not heard from her husband since that day. “I don’t know if he is alive or dead.”
They stayed in the mountain for a month, barely surviving on berries and swamp water, and then made the journey to Yola. Evelyn, who has studied economics, is longing to go back home. But she knows it will be a difficult return. “They have taken everything,” she says.
As needs are outpacing resources, UNICEF is urgently asking for additional funding to help respond to the crisis. But perhaps the biggest helping hand is coming from the communities and the women, themselves.
In Abuja, Halima, who has a university degree, has cleared out a corner of the construction site where she shelters for a makeshift school for the children. It is a way for the children to cope and be better prepared for going back. And Halima is determined to do just that.
“I just want to go home,” she says. “There is no place like home.”
Malene Kamp Jensen is a Communication Specialist based at UNICEF NYHQ. This account was written in Abuja and Yola, Nigeria, during a visit to the country in March 2015.