- Thousands of women in Borno have had to raise their children alone because their husbands, arbitrarily accused of being members of Boko Haram, are jailed by the Nigerian Army. But they are not planning to give up hope.
Hauwa has not heard from her husband in many years. In 2015, her town, Bama, Borno State, was overrun by Boko Haram jihadist insurgents. Shortly afterwards, the Nigerian Army swooped on the town to retake it. Under the ensuing panic and confusion, she fled with some members of her family. They settled in Godiya for seven months by which time they envisaged it was safe to return to Bama.
At Nguro Soye, on the road to Bama, they were stopped by soldiers. They must stay a distance away, came the first instruction from the soldiers. Next thing, their belongings were literally searched with a fine-tooth comb for suspicious items. They separated the men from the women. The men were then blindfolded and taken to a prison facility in Bama. Other accounts have it that the officers beat them up before they were whisked away.
For four days, the locals were interrogated about their whereabouts, and why it took them so long to return, Hauwa recalled. They explained that they feared for their lives and only went back after hearing on the radio that the area had become occupied by state forces.
“They said the men would be taken to government camps where they would be taken care of. We, the women, were taken to Bama Hospital camp,” she said solemnly.
“ㅡIt’s been five years now.”
An encounter with death
While the men were moved from one military detention centre to the other, their wives, mothers, and daughters battled starvation, sickness, and hardship. At Bama, the women were first kept in desolate, abandoned houses. They were later transferred to the community’s hospital, ostensibly to protect them from possible terrorist attacks.
“They ordered us to renovate where we would sleep using the remains of burnt and abandoned houses,” Hauwa said.
“We were given food in cups until they created a kitchen for us. The food was terrible, but we had no choice. Approximately 20 people died every day. Luckily for us, elites from Bama had the roads reopened. They came and saw our living condition. That was when they insisted we be moved to Yerwa, Maiduguri, due to hunger.”
Officials of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) took a headcount of the women and moved them to Yerwa. Here, for the first time, the sick among them were given access to healthcare. The group had found that nearly 20 per cent of the children suffered from severe malnutrition. About 78 of them who were on the verge of death were moved to a therapeutic feeding centre in Maiduguri.
Like Hauwa, Yakura Hajja Babagana fled from her home in Andara, a community in Borno State, in 2016. Following the invasion of her town by members of Boko Haram, she fled in the middle of the night with her family to Banki. Soldiers who met them in their distress demanded that they pay to be ferried in a military truck to an IDP camp. She said the soldiers later collected most of their valuables and in return gave them some garri and sorghum.
“We had to go and fetch firewood to make fire to cook. At night, they gave directives on where we must sleep. That we must not make any noise or use flashlights. Then they would lock us inside the room,” Yakura recalled.
“The next morning, they unlocked the doors so we could fetch water. We then asked about our men who were separated from us. They told us they were making preparations to take them to Maiduguri camp.”
Soon, a car arrived and picked up only the men with the assurance that they were headed for an IDP camp in Maiduguri. Four days later, the women were taken to Darajimal in Bama Local Government Area. The next morning, the military personnel transferred them to the general hospital in the town instead of the IDP camp as promised. They spent seven months at this location without their husbands and sons and with no signs they would soon be taken to the state capital.
A few weeks into their stay, the living conditions increasingly became worse. More people were brought to the shelter as each day passed until there was hardly any space left.
“We had no place to sleep, so we lived under trees. At times when it rained, we would be soaked, and we would wait for our clothes to dry on their own,” Yakura said. “Feeding was another struggle. Each family was given one ladle no matter its size. Garri was left for so long; worms started to appear on it.”
She added that the soldiers responded by spraying a local insecticide, Ota Piapia, on the sacks of garri, hoping to kill the worms but this only made it more unfit for consumption. The women started getting sick, mostly from diarrhoea. Many died, children and the elderly alike. Yakura herself lost some of her family members to the food poisoning incident and starvation.
“If my husband is eventually released, he has no one apart from us. His side of the family are all dead,” she said, immediately pausing as if to pay respect to the deceased.
She gave the names of some of those who died known to her: Abba Alhaji, her in-law; his wife; Falta Yawaye, his son; Kellus, his daughter; Yagana Ajiyes, a second daughter; Yankili; a third daughter; and Falta Guj. In all, she said, she knows at least 17 people who lost their lives during the period.
Falta Jiddaye, wife of Modu Fannaye, whom she has been married to for over two years, also lost her daughter, one of two children, to the incident at Bama. She sobbed as she narrated her ordeal.
She was in Bama with her mother-in-law, co-wife, children, and other relatives. The only ones who survived were some of the latter relatives, her second child, and a foster child ㅡ thanks to a timely intervention by the MSF which took them to a health facility in Maiduguri.
Amnesty International noted in 2018 that people who died at Bama Hospital camp between October 2015 and June 2016 numbered at least 879 based on witness reports. And the list has continued to grow.
Based on interviews with 212 female IDPs and former detainees, the organisation reported that thousands of displaced persons “died from starvation and sickness in appalling conditions” across satellite camps established by the Army, including the one at Bama Hospital.
The IDPs consistently reported up to 15 to 30 deaths a day at the hospital camp alone, it said, adding that its findings indicate that “the actions and/or inaction of the authorities, particularly the military, contributed to these deaths”.
This account is corroborated by a press statement released by the MSF following its visit to the camp in June 2016. The medical team reported counting 1,233 graves dug near the camp in the past, among which 480 were for children.
“New graves are appearing on a daily basis,” the group stated. “We were told on certain days more than 30 people were dying due to hunger and illness.”
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