The view from the helicopter gave me the first inkling of how conflict and violence had impacted the town I was moving to. I saw destroyed and abandoned buildings and homes, I saw a huge camp for displaced people in the middle of a forest. The town is Banki, in northeast Nigeria, 2.5km from the Cameroonian border and 135km from Maiduguri, the Borno state capital. Banki was attacked by Boko Haram insurgents in 2014. It wasn’t until late 2015, when the town came back under the control of the Nigerian military that some sense of normalcy returned.
I am here in Banki working with UNICEF to do what we can to provide quality primary healthcare for the displaced people living in the camp. People come here to seek relative safety from attacks on villages and towns across Borno. There is also a constant stream of people returning to Banki from Cameroon. For the first few weeks of my deployment, I was the only doctor in Banki working at our clinic which provides a range of health services, from maternal care, immunization, antenatal care consultations, to advice on nutrition. We serve more than 45 000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) with around 300 daily consultations. Since late July, I have treated over 1,500 children for acute malnutrition and coordinated the vaccination of about 9,500 children and women against killer diseases, such as measles and neonatal tetanus.
It’s an enormous task to look after such a huge number of people and to cope with a lack of electricity, mobile phone coverage and internet access at the same time. But whenever I feel exhausted, the passion for my patients keep me going.
When I have patients with complicated medical conditions that we cannot help at our facility, I mobilise support from the Nigerian Army to transport the patients across the Cameroonian border to a hospital. The risk of travelling along a road laden with mines or being shot by snipers is always imminent but I take the risk to be able to save lives.
Every day on my way to the health facility, I meet two lovely girls, Fanna and Bintu, in the camp. They always approach me to offer a kind word of prayer and glad tidings. Both of the girls have experienced unimaginable horrors in captivity by Boko Haram. Fanna’s father was killed right in front of her eyes, her mother and sister were then abducted. Bintu and her parents were running to reach a safe haven after their village on the border with Cameroon was attacked. Bintu got lost in the forest where the Nigerian Army found her. She was brought to our camp but has not been able to reunite with her family.
Despite these horrific experiences, the girls have somehow found hope in their everyday lives. Fanna often tells me how she wishes to have an education and reunite with her siblings. She tells me about her memories of the days when she played happily with her friends. She remembers how beautiful her past was, without the horrifying sounds of guns or bullets and having to survive on food rations.
These two girls and many other children at the camp remind me every day why it is so important to make sacrifices by working in the hardest hit towns in northeast Nigeria.
With the invaluable support of my colleague, Doctor Franklyn Nnakwue, who joined me in August 2017, and a small dedicated team of nurses, nutritionists and community health workers, we have been able to do things that no one thought would be possible. We have stretched ourselves to the limit. We have delivered hope where it has been so desperately sought but rarely found. Most importantly, we find a strong sense of satisfaction every day, knowing that we are part of a story, a story of hope, a story of faith, a story that the children, like Fanna and Bintu, will write one day when this conflict is over.
Dr Sa’id Gaya specialises in maternal and child health, he works for UNICEF in northeast Nigeria. His blog is part of UNICEF Nigeria’s Everyday Heroes series.