Wednesday 1 April 2015

The Plight Of The Displaced

Credit: The Guardian Nigeria
Terror struck the morning of Sunday, 7th August 2014, when members of the insurgent sect – Boko Haram – took over Michika town in Adamawa State. 

Many people were not aware of the news until they began to see huge influxes of people into Yola, the State capital. People were on trailers and lorries, and jam-packed in other smaller vehicles. The fear factor reached fever pitch when news spread that the military had closed the gates of Mubi, keeping the fleeing residents trapped in the town.

I was in the office, totally oblivious of what was happening, when I got snapped out of my false sense of security. One of my colleagues came in and said he had seen over seventeen army trucks lined up in town and many fleeing refugees with nowhere to go.

When I went outside, it was to see other colleagues in a state of frenzy. I walked slowly, hoping to find out what was happening and telling myself over and again that getting scared wouldn’t help me. I realized that many people were making speculations and no one really knew what was happening. At that point, I was tired of the rush of emotions I was feeling and just wanted to go home. The company driver said he couldn't head out because the roads were clogged. At that pronouncement, staff members – including those who had their own cars – decided to head out on foot. I followed them. I asked my program partner to join us and she was adamant because she didn't know what we were going to be walking into. I was sure we would be safe but she needed some convincing. After a few minutes of cajoling and threatening to leave without her, she finally budged and then we set off. We took a short cut and came out on the main road after walking for about ten minutes. It wouldn't have taken a magician to know that something was really amiss. The cars were lined up as far as one could see and at each other’s bumpers. All the cars were full, and in fact, over loaded with people, bags, properties and what not. Adamawa had become the latest to suffer at the hands of the insurgents.

Months after that first major attack, there have been many more, which has prompted more and more people to flee into the state capital: Internally Displaced People or IDPs for short. They were talked about in the news, among traders and drivers and even among the elite. To many, they are nothing but statistics and numbers. But today, they were real to us.

One of my colleagues decided to spend his birthday with these displaced people. He called on friends and family to support him by bringing clothes, food, toiletries and other necessities for the IDPs. The response was massive. People went all out to help in whatever way they could. On his birthday, we all headed out to the Bajabure IDP camp in Adamawa. There was a convoy of cars filled with materials for the people.

When we got to the camp, I must say that we were a bit surprised. The camp was an estate built by Vice Admiral Murtala Nyako on the Numan road. The area is a bit far from town and the houses were largely empty. As a result of the overwhelming influx of people into town, the estate was turned to a camp for the IDPs. So you can imagine our surprise when we got there and saw a row of nice houses.

When we got to the gate, the security man made a fuss about our visit and only let us in when the celebrant called the camp director or someone like that. As soon as we got in, people started trickling out to see the visitors. It wasn't long before the word spread; visitors had come and they came bearing gifts! Soon enough, people started coming out in droves. We were suddenly surrounded by a sea of people. I must admit, I never knew they were that many.

They couldn't wait until the address from the celebrant was done. All they cared about was the piece of the bounty they were going to get from us. Some of the women and children moved closer to where I stood. Their murmuring drew my friends and I even closer. We asked what the problem was and they told us that we had to stay for the distribution of the items. When we asked why we needed to wait, they were quick to tell us that certain individuals had crowned themselves bosses and were hoarding relief materials for their personal gain. My friend and I shared a look. We proceeded to ask more people if these statements were true. It turned out that they were in fact true. A few people were using the pain these people were facing to dominate them and accrue more materials to their selfish selves. I spoke to a boy whom I'm going to call Kwaji. He sounded very intelligent, somehow knowing my Hausa was stilted and proceeding to speak in English. He didn't speak the Queen's English but he wasn't far off. His tenses were correct and his grammar sound. I asked if he was a student and he said, quite clearly I might say, that he had been in Junior Secondary School 3 (JSS 3). My next question would have been what he wanted to be in life but looking at his condition at that moment, I couldn't bring myself to do that. I kept repeating that it would be well, not sure whether or not he believed me.

As soon as the distribution started, any dignity of their person fled. They crowded the distributors like ant to sugar. I was shocked at the desperation I was seeing. It was no surprise that a fight broke out and got out of control. People started clawing their way to get the items. I must admit that my first thought was that I needed to get out of that place before it got bloody. My friend pulled me aside and, with unhurried steps, led me back to the car which we came with. When we got there, we turned back in time to see that someone was using a stick to get people in order. It took a while but the people finally calmed down. They got into long queues and patiently waited their turn.

After some minutes of sharing the goods, the people behind realized that they had not received anything and the items were fast disappearing. Whatever shred of peace there was shattered in that instance. People were desperate to get something – anything – and they were ready to do anything to get it! A woman picked a bag of clothes and began to run. Unfortunately, that was the final load that broke the camel’s back. People chased her, raising enough dust to get an asthmatic patient in a bad way. She was caught and probably beaten so they could get a share of the booty. It was a sight I was ashamed to see.

Another incident that created a furor happened when the celebrant wanted to share his cake. The children were literally drooling over the thought of cake melting in their mouths. They started hustling to get a piece of the cake. It was heartbreaking to watch, not just because the children were gathering up for cake (all children love cake) but because the desperation on their faces and in their little push-and-tug spoke of something more than just a desire for cake.

Some of the adults got angry at this point. They didn't care that the celebrant had brought bags and bags of clothes, toiletries and food for them. They also didn't care that we were a group of people showing love and care without the cameras rolling. All they saw was that someone brought cake to share. One man in particular started ranting. He said that we had insulted them by bringing the cake to the camp. His voice progressively got angrier and my friend had to come in. She told him that my colleague wanted to celebrate his birthday with people who were displaced; that he could have gone anywhere but decided to channel his resources and energy into bringing a little succor to those affected by the Boko Haram onslaught. If we thought that would change his view, we were absolutely wrong. Instead, he got angrier, saying that no one cared about any birthday. That they had been uprooted from their houses and were not interested in any 'rubbish' as he put it. I must admit that I got angry. Here we were, with more than 15 big ‘Ghana-must-go’ bags filled with necessities and this man was acting like we had only brought the cake. I am known to have a fiery temper so I walked away from the scene and back to the bus. I knew that I was close to giving that man a serious tongue lashing. My friend traded some words with him and also left. At that point, I couldn't wait to be out of that place! I couldn't stand it anymore.

picture of internally displaced children
Children join a queue to receive some of the gifts we brought at the Bajabure IDP camp in Yola, Adamawa State.
It wasn't long afterwards that we left. Everyone was tired of the outing. It had been a draining event.

When we got home, I knew I wasn't going to go back to the camp or any other one for that matter. Call me selfish and I might agree. I can't stand the thought of seeing another set of poorly dressed, hungry people who have dead looks in their eyes. I don't want to see the hopelessness firmly etched on the faces of the displaced people. I never want to see the esteem of people completely thrown to the gutters as they try to get basic needs met. I have heard of young girls taking up prostitution because they have been displaced. There are just so many things wrong that one cannot help but be sad.

Though the government is making headway in tackling the insurgency, more needs to be done. The Boko Haram sect needs to be completely wiped out, with the only traces of it found in our history books. And when this is done, the government needs to ensure that no form of insurgency ever cripple this nation or her people again.

We also have to remember that when the towns are deemed fit for habitations, and the displaced people are allowed to return, they will have a lot of things they will need to handle. Many will return to homes that were completely razed to the ground and destroyed. Many will open their wells and see bodies of people who could not escape. Many will be discouraged by their farm lands that have been left in ruins and tainted with blood. And many more still will return to lonely homes without family members and with little friends. So it boils down to us to keep reminding our government of the need to help these people rehabilitate; be it physically, emotionally and even financially. We must remember the plight of the displaced as we go about our normal lives, our normal activities, our normal behaviors. They are the victims of a failed system, of a failed government and of the selfishness of the nation we call Nigeria. We must not forget them as we continue on with our lives.

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