“We all want to go to school,” 11-year old Fatima* tells me, talking on behalf of all eight girls in the wooden hut. After listening to the horror of their stories, it’s not an answer I necessarily expected.
I’m in a displaced persons camp, on the outskirts of Maiduguri town, Borno’s state capital, in northeast Nigeria. A region that has been ravaged by conflict, malnutrition and now cholera – after years of Boko Haram violence. Children are targeted and exposed to unspeakable horror and suffering. They are literally under attack.
Fatima told me how she was abducted by Boko Haram when her village was ransacked. Her father was killed and she was held captive for five months. Fatima was forced to marry a fighter and raped repeatedly, before managing to escape. She was 11-years old.
Falmata* was also taken by the group into the bush. She was 16 at the time and was not married off but raped by six different men. She fell pregnant and then escaped. When Falmata was found she was so weak that she was brought in to the camp in a wheelbarrow – she couldn’t talk.
After Falmata gave birth to her son, Musa*, the UNICEF child protection worker told me that she began to recover physically and mentally. But two weeks ago Musa died, no one knows exactly why, it may have been malaria. When I met Falmata she was clearly traumatized by all of her experiences, the death of her son has set her recovery back again.
Fatima and Falmata’s horrific stories are just two of thousands. Every child has been affected by the crisis in northeast Nigeria.
Child or a bomb?
On a visit to the UNICEF-supported hospital in Maiduguri, I meet Mohamed, a one-month-old, and Aisha who is looking after him. Mohamed is extremely frail but the doctors say he will survive and recover. He was found by Aisha on the side of the road in a bag where he had been left.
When some children saw the bag they ran thinking it was a bomb. But Aisha, a mother of six, saw something move and realized there was a baby inside. She rushed the little boy to the hospital. He was stabilized and admitted to the ward that treats children for severe acute malnutrition. Aisha has dedicated herself to saving the boy, she named him Mohamed, and has agreed to be the surrogate mother. A hero.
Mohamed’s story sums up a lot about the situation in Borno. The intense daily struggle for survival can be so unbearable that looking after another child is too much. The shame of giving birth to a child born of sexual violence, the normality of thinking a bag by the side of the road is a bomb and that a child could even be a bomber. It’s not surprising, nearly 100 children, mostly girls, have been used so far this year as ‘human bombs’. Such attacks are so common that they barely get a mention in the international or even national press.
A complex humanitarian operation
Outside Maiduguri, road movement is so dangerous that helicopters are the only safe way to reach many areas. But brave aid workers make this journey in and out on numerous occasions. Some are dropped off in areas for one month to six weeks.
Flying over the Sambisa forest and deep into Boko Haram controlled territory we see the destruction. Village after village hollowed out, the roofs of huts and buildings blown off, as if a tornado came through. From this height, it’s hard to fathom the horror that children like Fatima and Falmata lived through and many others continue to do so below.
As we descend into Banki, some 135km south-east of Maiduguri, the devastation is overwhelming. The whole town has been almost completely destroyed. More than 40,000 people have now gathered from nearby villages at a camp on the outskirts of the town that is protected by the Nigerian military.
I’m met off the helicopter by two UNICEF supported doctors. They are on the frontline working to save children’s lives from malnutrition and other diseases and I’m quickly exposed to the scale of their work.
At the UNICEF-supported clinic are Fatima and Zara, an 11-month old girl. Every breath she takes is a struggle, she is severely malnourished and may not survive the night. The team talks with the military Colonel to try and fast track her evacuation for more specialized treatment. Later that day I hear that she’s been transferred across the nearby border to a more advanced medical clinic in Cameroon.
It’s relentless work but is saving lives and providing hope. Just like Fatima, Falmata and their friends who are now going to school and are determined to resume their childhoods and the few brave teachers who are slowly coming back to places like Banki to teach again.
But their hope also relies on all of us who must commit to staying the course for the sake of Fatima, Falmata, Mohamed, Zara and all the children who are living through so much horror and suffering.
*Names have been changed
Justin Forsyth is the Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF