Dar es Salaam Camp, Baga Sola, Chad: It is 4:00 in the afternoon, on a day in March. That means it is time for football. As the debilitating heat of the desert sun starts to ease, boys of all ages gather to lose themselves in the intoxication of the beautiful game. For a couple of hours, all is almost forgotten, as the black and white ball jolts around in a small cloud of dust through the cooling sand.
Momentarily, the weighing reality that these boys are here because they have been chased, hunted from their homes in Nigeria by the armed group Boko Haram, is lifted from their shoulders. For many, family members and friends have been killed before their eyes; some have lost their parents in the chaos and are now here at this refugee camp all alone.
The UNICEF-supported child friendly space is where I meet Peter, a 15-year-old boy, small for his age, but big on personality. “They call me Neymar,” he says, grinning, and then he points to the boy next to him and says happily, “And this is my friend Mohammed – they call him Messi”. It must be true, for he is wearing what is surely Africa’s most popular t-shirt: a maroon and blue Barcelona football shirt with ‘Messi’ imprinted on the back.
Mohammed and Peter are more than firm friends; they are like brothers – inseparable. They stay in the same tent, walk to school together, fetch water together, cook together and, importantly, play football together. They are also both here without their families. In the chaos of the Boko Haram attacks in their villages, both were separated from their parents and siblings. There are 126 other separated and unaccompanied children at the camp.
Peter retells his horrific journey from Nigeria with unease and in an almost disconnected manner: In January, he was out fishing with a family friend while the rest of his family was in the town of Maiduguri. At around 4:00 a.m., he was awakened by gunshots and fled along with his neighbours, as Boko Haram chased them. They ran to Baga hoping for safety, but only found themselves running again with Boko Haram pursuing them. From Baga, they fled to Doro, where they got into a boat that ultimately took them to Ngouboua – which, a few weeks later, would become the scene of the first attack by Boko Haram on Chadian soil.
From Ngouboua, Peter, along with around 4,404 refugees, was taken to the Dar es Salaam camp near Baga Sola.
“Many of the children who arrive here show symptoms of trauma because of the violence they have witnessed. They don’t eat or sleep, and some can’t talk about it all,” says Dr. Claude Ngabu, Chief of the UNICEF Baga Sola Field Office.
Through the child friendly space, community workers start to counsel the children and provide them with a safe space to talk about their experiences. They play boardgames and sports like football and volleyball. The community workers help reunite children with their families.
Through this programme, Peter’s family was traced to Maiduguri, in north-east Nigeria. “I called them. They are very happy that I am here in Dar es Salaam – that they [Boko Haram] didn’t kill me.”
Peter speaks regularly to his family now, and the hope is that soon he will be reunified with them. “I miss them, and right now I’m not happy,” he says. “By the grace of God, I will go back and see them.” But ongoing violence and insecurity in the Lake region means that this reunion will have to wait.
In the meantime, Peter is attending the newly opened temporary learning space at the camp. He is one of the few students who has had some sort of a formal education, albeit a sporadic five years of schooling. Most of the learners have either only been to Koranic school or have never entered a school classroom. Schools and health clinics in the Lake Chad region are few and far between, and roads are almost non-existent. Even at the age of 15, Peter is very candid about his life options and explains to me that, while he wants to go and see his family, he also wants to finish school here – at home it will not be easy because of the violence and poverty.
As the sun begins to set, Peter and Mohammed start preparing their evening meal. “I know how to cook,” he says proudly, while showing each of the ingredients that he will mix together in a pot over a small fire outside: rice, flour, a few slivers of a red onion, some oil and one Maggie stock cube make up the meal. “After we eat, we go to sleep, then we wake up and go to school, ” says Peter. “That is it.”
For this aspiring football star who has defied the odds and made it to safety through a most violent experience, a boy whose childhood is forever gone, but who still wakes up and goes to school ferociously absorbing every bit of information he can – it is hard to believe that “that is it” and that his remarkable journey will end here. So I choose not to believe it.
Suzanne Beukes is a Communication Officer with UNICEF.