From tales of death, mal-nutrition and lack of access to education, the myriad of problems confronting children displaced by Boko-Haram seem enormous. HANNAH OJO who visited some IDPs settlements around Abuja reports.
An unmarked cemetery at Mandala Azoro houses the remains of thirteen children who went down like ninepins after a measles outbreak in Wasa, a Village in the FCT Abuja. They were aged five and below. The earth above their bodies still bore a fatal remembrance of the injurious loss; two months after they became victims to the twin inconvenience of poverty and disease.
The children in Wasa IDP location had survived the terrors of Boko-Haram in their home town of Gwoza only to come to a sticky end months later when the infectious but preventable diseases broke through their settlement at an uncompleted estate in the village.
When the news of their death broke in November 2015, the executive secretary of the FCT Primary Health Care Board, Dr Rilwan Mohammed, had given the number of the casualties as 10. The media quoted the same but the secretary of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Wasa, Usman Ibrahim, confirmed 13 deaths. A personal visit to the grave of the deceased confirmed the accurate figure to be 13.
The measles outbreak, it was learnt, was transferred by the Fulani children to the children of the IDPs through interaction in the only primary school built by government in the village.
“There are no benches in the school so all the pupils sit on the floor. There is no hospital or pharmacy here so when the measles broke, we reported to FEMA (FCT Emergency Management Agency). FEMA called Abuja Municipal Area Council (AMAC) to send us doctors. The measles had been ravaging for 11 days before the doctors came. The children died around November. Some died on the 15th, some on the 13th ,” Usman further submitted.
Sarah Andrew, 27, an indigene of Gwoza who has lost relatives and friends to the Boko-Haram insurgency, also confirmed the demise of the children stating the cause of their deaths as Kada (an Hausa name for measles).
“The children died as a result of lack of immunization. I have been here for two years and I have witnessed pregnant women and children dying,” she said.
Measles is an infectious disease which leads to significant deaths among children in developing countries. It was after these deaths that other IDP children in Wasa were immunized; fulfilling the delayed promise of the health ministry to take measles campaign to the to the door steps of all Nigerians irrespective of their place of residence in the country.
However, despite this medicine- after- death approach, investigation by The Nation shows that children in various IDP settlements within Abuja may be in for other disasters judging by the poor sanitation conditions of the five IDP locations visited. The settlements in Wasa, Waru, Durumi, Kuchingoro, Karmajiji Tudun Muntsira are occupied mainly by people from Gwoza local government in Bornu state.
Findings show that the children usually come down with complaints of running stomachs. They are also susceptible to gastrointestinal infections like diarrhoea and Cholera. Polio and Trachoma, an infectious disease of the eyelid spread by poor hygiene and sanitation arising from lack of adequate safe water supply could also result in the future.
When The Nation visited Wasa village, the only borehole for the IDPs built by a youth corps member was no longer functioning. The children were seen fetching water from an infected pond, judging from the brownish colour of the water springing from it. Other children gathered at a well where their fetchers were already scratching the base of the well bringing out coloured water.
The scarcity of water is made worse by the parching dust and dryness of the harmattan season. The abandoned uncompleted estate they occupy has no toilets. They wade to the bushes not far from their surroundings to answer the call of nature. There is also no electricity supply.
The Worst Place to be Born
When the Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU, a sister company of The Economist magazine ranked Nigeria as the worst place to be born in 2013, it certainly did not include the plights of children born in IDP locations in the FCT as an indices for the projection.
The heat was intense on a Wednesday afternoon when the reporter called into Esther Tanko’s tent at the Durumi location for IDPs of Gwoza indigenes in the FCT. She radiates the warmth of a woman who just welcomed a bundle of joy. She is one of the lucky few who possess a mattress which lay on a bare floor. Her son, who is nearing two weeks, is yet to be named. His circumcised penis is still reddish from slow healing, made worse by the hot weather which permeates easily into the shacks used to build the tent. The heat pierces the skin of an adult.
The mother of seven, who spoke in Hausa, narrated her pregnancy ordeal: “This particular pregnancy was very tough for me. There is no hospital here and there was nobody to help. It was some members of the Redeemed Christian Church of God, RCCG that I attended that took me to the Wuse General Hospital where my blood sample was taken and I was diagnosed of typhoid and malaria. The church paid the hospital bills and bought baby things for me.”
Esther gave birth with the help of other women in the camp. She said the baby, who is almost two weeks old would be named after the pastor of the church which helped her survive the pregnancy.
Unlike Esther who was able to get help, many of the women in the camp had had to rely on traditional method during the course of pregnancy. There is no clinic and the hospital they were directed to use by the FCT Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is quite a distance and many are not able to cough out money for taxi. They have been forced to rely on traditional methods of pregnancy care and this had not been without casualties.
Mrs Liatu Ayuba who lost her husband, a policeman, to Boko-Haram and also nurses a 21 year old son handicapped by a bomb attack, is the woman leader at the Durumi IDP camp. She said she has helped deliver about 23 babies in various shackled tents since they arrived the settlement over a year ago.
“There was a particular delivery experience that I won’t forget. It was raining heavily and we could not get the mother’s to the proper position because the floor was wet and flooded. That day I cried. We later carried her with the help of other women to my own tent where she delivered the baby.”
Asked of the health infrastructure put in place for women and children within the various IDP locations in Abuja, the head of Public Relations Unit, FEMA, Josie Mudasiru, said there is no health infrastructure on ground for the IDPS because they are squatting on land belonging to private Nigerians.
“We only have arrangements with health secretariat and various NGOs to visit with doctors who attend to their health needs. Arrangement is also on with government hospitals to attend to pregnant women”, she said further.
The Agony of mal-nourished children
A sight is quite familiar in most of the IDP locations visited: children with stunted growth and brown coloured hair. This is not only linked to the fact that many of the IDPs rely on handouts from individuals to survive but also traced to the tortuous journey of escape for survival.
Naheema Suleiman, 30, lost a 15- year- old daughter in Sambisa Forest when she was trying to escape from Boko-Haram members who threatened to marry young women in her town. Also a Gwoza indigene, she is one of the IDPs in Karmajiji Tudun Muntsira where 56 households and a total of over 248 displaced persons are trying to eke out a living .
She told the grim tales of how small children were fed at the time they were fleeing their hometown.
“We packed Tuwo grains and mix it with water to make it appear like a pap and put in pet bottles. When we are on the road and the children begin to cry for food, we will give them to drink. When we reached Cameroun, they did not help us; they were chasing us away to the camp. Even if a child’s pant is wet and you want it to dry, they will ask you to remove it from the line. They told us not to put bomb in their place.
“From there, those who had money were able to go get a vehicle to Yola. Those who had no money were forced to the Cameroun IDP camp where there is no food and children were falling sick and suffering. Some children fell sick on the road and some women died. A woman had to give birth on the road. We could not stay at the IDP camp in Cameroun because we heard there is no food and children were falling sick and suffering.”
At the Kuchingoro camp, the reporter met with Chonfilawos Danladi and Luku John, both 11 years old Primary 3 pupils of a school donated by an NGO in their camp. They confessed to not eating breakfast but relying on the free food served to them during break time.
Dr. Ifeanyi Nsofor, the Director of Consulting Services at EpiAfric, an organization involved in public health has worked in proving free medical services to displaced women and children in some IDP camps in the FCT.
His take on the health status of some of the children he has encountered: “Most children who were brought to the clinic showed physical signs of malnutrition, including stunted growth with signs of failure to thrive. The common complaints included abdominal pains, cough, catarrh and fever.
The poor sanitation within the camp exposes all residents to infectious diseases. The rains also worsen the already poor sanitation within the camp and an outbreak of an infectious disease is just in the offing.”
Continuing, he said; “The pregnant women the volunteers saw have never attended antenatal clinics; one was in her 8th month of pregnancy. Most children had not been immunized and could acquire any of the vaccine-preventable diseases,” he submitted.
School without walls; emergency education for displaced children
The bell tolled and the children swiftly move to form the assembly lines at the new Kuchingoro Camp. It was a sobering scene: some lucky to get uniforms, while others wore dust-coloured house wears with feet adorned with slippers. Their faces were caked with harmattan dust and a woman helped with cleaning their running nose with tissue. The reporter later learnt that she is the school nurse.
“We want to enforce some hygienic disciplines but we don’t always have the water,” an anonymous source in the school confided in the reporter. Despite the obvious challenges, the children there are far better in terms of education than the other locations visited.
The school without walls is an initiative of Life Builders, an NGO coordinated by a management consultant and pastor, Sanwo Olatunji David. He confessed to being moved by the plight of the children who were not attending school when he visited them in 2013 for evangelism in the company of his wife. The school operates in two settlements of the IDPs in Kuchingoro.
“For the past 10 years, I fly business class or first class whenever I travelled overseas but since the start of Life Builders, I now fly economy. It is not comfortable but it is worth it when you see what your money does for the children,” he enthused.
The school which caters to the educational needs of over 600 IDP children also provides feeding once a day for them. It has permanent teachers, three of whom are IDPs who were teaching in schools in their native state.
“It is capital-intensive but you have to feed the children because if they don’t eat, they won’t be able to concentrate in class. It is like helping yourself because they could go round and become robbers to hurt you in the future”, the director of the project, Pastor David reasoned.
For many of the children who could not cope at the secondary level, the foundation is planning a vocational centre where they can learn skills in tailoring, welding, fish farming, carpentry and brick making, with which they would be able to use to sustain themselves when they return to their hometown after Boko-Haram had been conquered.
The NGO, it was learnt, also pay school fees for over 200 students in other IDP settlement in Nasarawa state. It is a huge project and the director said the organization is working on a sustainability plan of funding the project by organizing a stakeholders’ forum in February.
“A good number of people have supported with books, school uniforms but you can’t plan with it because it is not regular. The project has gotten to a point of no return. It is not like the days when we just started when I have to drive the car and my wife has to cook the food and my daughter who us an architect would also join in teaching the children. We were doing it alone until the number of the children got to a point where we had to call on God to raise our finances so could employ other people”, Pastor David submitted.
Cordelia Nyamsi, the proprietress of Golden Lamb Christian School, who volunteered to teach displaced children described her experience so far. “The experience has been challenging because of their background and the trauma they had been through. They are used to being taught in Hausa, so many of them don’t understand English; so the language is a barrier. Anytime I teach and they respond, it gives me more reason to stay here.”
A teacher in the secondary section of the school, Sake Abdulahi, who left his local government in Bauchi due to delayed salaries , also shared his experience with the children:
“When we started this school, if you call one of the IDP children and say come, unless you use a sign language, they would run. But now, they can now actually understand the difference between come and go in English. They are assimilating knowledge and we are enjoying them.”
An estimated one million children have been forced out of school as a result of violent attack by Boko-Haram, according to a United Nations report. Many of these children are cut off from education but there is a semblance of educational of support for IDP children in Kuchngoro through the effort of one man who chose to see things differently. Unfortunately, other locations are not as lucky as the government schools where kids could be registered are located in far distances, out of the reach of the IDPs.
People without identity
To a large extent, IDPs in various settlements around Abuja are left on their own with no government help or recognition, a situation which further subjects them to poverty and squalor.
The Director General of the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), Muhammad Sani Sidi, declared that there is no recognized internally displaced person camp in the FCT, urging those claiming to be IDPs in Abuja on account of insurgency to go back to their states and get registered.
However, Dr Allen Manasseh, a humanitarian agent and director with End of Violence And Restoration Our Ancestral Home Organisation, EVRAH disagrees. Manasseh, a native of Chibok who had worked to profile and assist IDPs both in government recognized camps and host community camps said:
“Any one that is saying they have no business being here (Abuja) should recover their homes for them and let them return. Do you think they are happy being here sleeping on mates and eating from hand outs? They have been fending for themselves all their lives from their villages and farms.
“Today, if their territories are safe, they are happy to go back. Is Gwoza accessible up till date? Where do they want them to go? Bama is not accessible if not in full military movement. Let us see the apparatus of government in shape in all the recovered territories and all will return willingly. Government is not managing any IDP camp in Abuja, the IDPs are at the mercies of ordinary Nigerians and NGOS,” he submitted.
At the back end of a makeshift tent in an IDP settlement at Kuchingoro, two toddlers, excluded from the school crowd, sit on the bare floor. With mucus running down their nose and dust caked feet; they relish loaf of dry bread. They had survived the terrors of war but now their future lies bleak and undecided.
This is the first part of a series of reports supported with funds from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting Abuja through the ACCESS Nigeria project. It is published with permission.