Brothers run again and again as Boko Haram terror spreads
Diffa, Niger – Bala never imagined he would have to step over dead bodies to save his life. His brother Mahamadou never thought he would have to hide beneath them to save his.
"They were killing children in the streets. They were shooting at pregnant women," says Bala, 50, remembering how Boko Haram tore through his town, in northern Nigeria.
"Everyone was terrified, running in any direction. It was chaos. People were being killed in front of me. They were collapsing in front of me. I panicked and I recall stepping over several dead bodies to escape. Bullets were flying around me.”
"They were killing children in the streets, they were shooting at pregnant women. Everyone was terrified."
Mahamadou, 63, picks up the story, describing how he faced a barrage of Boko Haram gunfire as he ran from the same attack to the Komadougou River to escape to neighbouring Niger.
"I was lying on the grass, under dead bodies, pretending I was also dead," he says. "I saw people being massacred. I never thought I would make it out alive. I remained hidden under the bodies, silent."
The violence meted out by the Boko Haram insurgency is well known. What is less reported is what happens to the 2.7 million people like Bala, Mahamadou and their families across Nigeria, Niger, Chad and Cameroon who have survived the sect’s attacks, but were forced to flee, frequently more than once.
“For months after the attack, I had nightmares," says Bala, who owned a shop selling motorcycle spare parts at home in Damassak, a town in Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria. He and his brother spoke on the condition their full names were not used. Despite Boko Haram's widely publicised kidnapping of women and schoolgirls, its main targets are also men and boys.
"I spent nights counting the number of people who were being killed in front of me," Bala continues. "I was depressed. And at the same time, I felt so lucky to be alive." After the initial attack, in November 2014, he and his family first found safety in a nearby village. For more than a year, it was a refuge.
But then, towards the end of March this year, gunmen on motorcycles and in pickup trucks came again, attacking the village where he was sheltering just like they had before: shooting in the air, killing people, burning houses, stealing livestock.
"I spent nights counting the number of people who were being killed in front of me."
As soon as Bala heard the gunshots, he fled with his wife and four children, further this time, across the river and into Niger. They stretched a rope between the two banks of the river to help their children cross. Eventually they stopped, exhausted, at a settlement called Gagamari, close to the town of Diffa.
There they joined more than 157,000 people who have fled Boko Haram's terror – often several times – and found an uncertain safety in 135 separate makeshift encampments strung along 200 kilometres of a major road inside Niger running parallel with the border with Nigeria, called Route Nationale 1, or RN1.
They are a mix of refugees from Nigeria, internally displaced people (IDPs) from within Niger, and Niger nationals who returned from Nigeria. Most fled renewed attacks last year in Nigeria that at times spilled into Niger, and some had escaped kidnap. They had little choice but to settle along the highway, because earlier violence pushed people into villages and towns that are today too overcrowded to absorb new arrivals.
Living along the road has its benefits. It is a key link to aid agencies, government authorities and traders. But conditions are harsh: in this remote and semi-desert environment, temperatures can reach 48 degrees Celsius during the current dry season. The rains that follow often flood the ramshackle settlements.
Shelters are made of dried grass, and sanitation is basic, with few toilets or washing facilities. Children are missing education because schools in nearby villages are already full. Food supplies are irregular, and the local population is not always able to share their meagre resources with the displaced.
"I don’t know how I am still alive, I was completely overwhelmed by what was happening around me."
The increasing insecurity, the huge number of settlements and a lack of funding means aid agencies including UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, are struggling to give as much help as people need. Less than one dollar in every six of the US$112 million required by 22 aid agencies, including UNHCR, for the Niger operation in the Diffa region has been received to date.
After he arrived in Gagamari, at least Bala was able to find his brother Mahamadou, who had fled to Niger with his wife and seven children immediately after the first attack on Damassak. Mahamadou, too, has struggled with the mental scars of surviving Boko Haram's raids. His voice shakes as he describes how he watched an armed insurgent wrench a baby from its father's arms, throw it to the ground and then shoot the father dead.
"I don’t know what happened to the baby," Mahamadou says. "I don’t know how I am still alive. I was completely overwhelmed by what was happening around me. There were dead bodies of men, women, children around me. I spent the night without eating, without drinking. The insurgents who had remained by the river were finishing the survivors."
The attack happened close to a year-and-a-half ago, but "it is still a huge trauma," he adds. "The children also remain very anxious, especially when they hear loud noises or screams. They are always on their guard. Even though we feel safer here in Niger, we are still afraid that the insurgents could hurt us somehow."
Those fears are valid. In February 2015, Boko Haram attacked Diffa town, before being repelled by the army. Recently, security in the region around Diffa and Bosso has deteriorated, with a succession of incidents including suicide attacks near villages and sites where both Nigerian refugees and IDPs are sheltering. Two major markets along the main road have been closed since April for fear infiltrated insurgents could target them. A 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew is in force across in the region.
“The security situation in the Diffa region remains very volatile and unpredictable,” says Karl Steinacker, the UNHCR Representative in Niger. “More people, residents and refugees alike, are asking to be moved further away from the border, fearing Boko Haram could attack their settlements in Niger, as they did in in Nigeria. Their fear is palpable."
In mid-May, at the Government's request, UNHCR started to relocate hundreds of refugees who preferred to live at a camp 50 kilometres from the border that now hosts at least 3,000 people. Among the first to opt to move were Bala and Mahamadou, and their families.
"We feel safer here. We have proper shelter, access to a clinic and food. The children just enrolled in school," Bala says. "What I really wish now is that decision makers in this world act quicker and more efficiently to prevent insurgents from killing more innocent men, women and children in Nigeria. We are just exhausted and horrified by so much violence."