Hamsatu Mustapha, a 36 years old widow, said she has no option than to forget about her home after Boko Haram attacked her village, Konduga, and forced her family to flee to Maiduguri, Borno State capital, about three years ago.
She is among the few internally displaced persons (IDPs) that were able to initially come out of such situations with their family intact. That gives her a lot of joy, even though she lost virtually all her property in Konduga. Nothing, of all the things she and her late husband had worked for in their nearly two decades of marriage, means anything to her any more, she says.
“When we were in Konduga, we thought it was the best place anyone could live and raise a decent family,” Mrs Mustapha said. “But it was later when Boko Haram came to attack our village that we came to realise that Konduga was never in the list of the best places one could live peacefully. “The only thing that is of essence to me now is my life and the well-being of my eight children. “Nothing in Konduga, my birth place endears me any longer. I lost everything, including my dear husband to the insurgency. I think that is enough sacrifice for Konduga” she said.
Mrs Mustapha agreed that Konduga used to be one of the most resilient villages in Borno State that did not easily fall to the Boko Haram gunmen. It was attacked severally by the insurgents who were resisted by a strong force of the Nigeria military deployed there.
It was in Konduga that the Nigeria military declared that Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the Boko Haram, was killed in September 2014. A claim that later turned out to be wrong, as the character paraded was just a lookalike of the deadly sect leader.
Had Konduga fallen to Boko Haram during the peak of their hostility, the insurgents would have easily attacked Maiduguri or taken over the University of Maiduguri which is one of the largest federal government investment located at the outskirts of the city along the Maiduguri-Bama road.
But when Konduga finally fell, the insurgents had lost their steam of advancing their troops into the state capital due to the heavy presence of soldiers along that axis.
During the last attack that forced most of the villagers to flee, Mrs Mustapha said her husband sustained a serious injury but managed to escape, despite his critical health condition, to Maiduguri.
“Boko Haram chased us to live here in Modusulumri suburb of Maiduguri. The gunmen killed many people and burnt our houses,” she told PREMIUM TIMES.
“We lost virtually everything that we ever possessed. It took us three days of wandering in the bush before we finally made it here. The Bulama of Modusulumri knew my husband, so he gave us an apartment in which the ten of us, comprising my husband, the eight children and I, have been living.”
Life as a Single Parent
Like many displaced women, Mrs Mustapha would later become the head of her large family as her husband could not survive the injury he sustained while escaping the invasion of their community.
“My husband sustained a major injury from a gunshot and I continued to attend to him for about three years before he eventually died and left me a widow and mother to eight orphans.
“It would be an understatement to say that we suffered all through,” she said.
She explained that her family saw life at the lowest rung of human indignity where feeding and putting on decent clothing was a dreamed luxury.
“Each time I set out to look for what to do in people’s house where I wash clothes or do other chores, I had to prepare myself to take any kind of insults or ill-treatment as long as I can keep my family’s dignity,” she said.
The Turning Point
“Life did not smile at us for over three years until recently when one of the international non-governmental organisations called NRC (Norwegian Refugee Council) came to our neighbourhood to carry out some kind of training for very poor people with interest in entrepreneur.
“I and other women were trained on how to do small scale business and then handed the sum of N43,500 as free grant to enable me set up a small scale business of my interest,” Mrs Mustapha said.
“We continued to live by the mercy and kindness of neighbours who don’t usually have much to offer at all times,” she said.
“I go out every day to seek for menial jobs to feed the family; and as a caring mother, I do not want my teenage daughters to go out to seek means of getting food for us, because I have seen many girls being taken advantage of or even go out of their way to sell their bodies for money or food to feed the family.
She said the money given to her by the NRC became a major turning point for her and her children. In less than a year, the little provision stall she opened in front of where she lives with her family has grown and has become the main means of sustenance for her family.
“Now I no longer have to go out scouting at people’s homes to get menial jobs,” she said.
“We may not be living on a standard that everyone wishes to have, but at least God has removed us from the list of thousands of other persons, especially women who are highly indigent and starving. Now we eat relatively well, and we even put on decent clothing with what we make out of the small business we are now managing.
“Above all, my kids are all going to the public school, which I can afford to pay for,” she added.
Going Back Home?
Last month, the Borno State Government announced the official return of IDPs from Bama town to their reclaimed communities that is being rebuilt by the state government with support from the federal government.
Konduga lies 37km along the highway that links Maiduguri and Bama; which means folks from Konduga too can return home as well.
Though there are a few people living within the IDP camp in Konduga, the main settlement is still desolate. This news of IDPs returning did not excite Mrs Mustapha.
“We have suffered so much and lost everything back there in Konduga; but honestly I do not hope or even wish to return to that place, because even the thought of the village makes me feel so unsafe. I no longer have any of my relations there.
“The only relative I had was my husband and he is no more, today. So, even if I choose to return today, in whose house am I going to live? I have since resolved to spend the rest of my life here in Maiduguri where I feel safe; and I would not want to put my children in any harm’s way again.
She said the news of continuing attacks around Maiduguri have also not encouraged her to return. “I love my community because that is where I have my ancestry.
“But anyone who passed through what I experienced and saw what I beheld in the bush while running for dear life, would not be eager to rush back there especially at a time when Boko Haram fighters are still bringing attacks from the bush to the township here.”
Mrs Mustapha said she counts her misfortune as an act of providence. “Maybe it is God’s wish that the next generation of my family will spring up from Maiduguri and not Konduga,” she said, eyes filled with tears.
“We were forced by Boko Haram to come here, and here shall we tarry for a very long time to come. Besides I see my children having a better and secured life here than back there in the hinterlands”.
A 2017 report on humanitarian situation in the North-east tagged ‘Not ready to return; IDP Movement Intentions in Borno’ showed that the stance of Mrs Mustapha of not returning home was common among many IDPs.
The report was jointly released by the NRC, the European Union Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and REACH.
The report stated that “a significant proportion of the IDP household can be expected to remain at their current locations in the nearest future.”
It explained further that about 23 per cent of the IDPs would rather want to reintegrate in their current places of displacement; while about 67 per cent of them who indicated the intention of returning to their liberated communities have no idea on what to do with their lives after they might have returned home.
Many outside IDP camps in dire need
Mrs Mustapha said she is just amongst the very few lucky ones who could get a semblance of a second chance at life after passing through years of trauma, pains and lack.
According to her, “there are many other widows whose stories are worse than hers’, who are yet to get help.
“Here in our new community, Modusulumri, I heard that about 200 households have been assisted with the N43,500 cash for small-scale business, but there are many others who are still in difficulty that also needed support.”
Reports from various international humanitarian organisations working in the North-east have confirmed that the population in the organised IDP camps represent a tiny fraction of those displaced by the insurgency. That most of the displaced populations outside the camps face different kinds of abuse and exploitations that are not often reported or known by officials.
The International Organisation for Migration said in a ‘displacement tracking matrix’ (DTM) report of 2015 that 92 per cent of the displacements caused by Boko Haram live in the host communities outside IDP camps. This means that of the over 3 million people displaced by Boko Haram, only about 240, 000 of the IDPs live within the organised camps; while about 2.7 million other IDPs are spread in several host communities. Most of these victims, though it was (and is) their choice to be in the host communities, have their different tales of trauma, anguish, tears, hunger, deprivation and neglect.
The United Nations Committee on Human Rights (UNHCR) also stated that “displaced populations are living in squalid conditions characterized by overcrowding and limited access to safe, sanitary and dignified accommodation.”
“IDPs and returnees in Nigeria hosted in camps and displacement sites are often living in congested shelters or isolated in insecure or inhospitable areas, making them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
“The situation is most precarious in settlements such as camps, displacement sites, and unfinished buildings. The lack of shelter is, therefore, a major and persistent challenge and one of the main barriers to return.
“Displaced people in the region also face precarious health conditions and have poor access to health services. The health problems they report are mostly related to the change in their living conditions,” according to the UNHCR report.
It is also observed that some of the IDPs that are yearning to hurriedly return to their communities, despite the possible dangers of further attacks, like the case of Bama, are doing so due to the deprived conditions they find themselves in, either in the camps or in the host communities.
It is a standard that IDPs returning to their liberated communities must make an informed decision, one that is not only considered safe but voluntary and with dignity.
But given the apparent hardship that they face, especially with those living in the host communities, they usually crave for or jump at the opportunities opened for them to make the decision to return home.
“Many of these IDPs don’t have enough knowledge on what it means to be “informed” before they embark on the return journey home. To be informed means the persons concerned must be put in context in such a manner that they must be given the privilege of going to see the community first and from there, they make their decision on whether it is safe for them to return or not. That was what the UN convention on returning IDPs stipulated.
“By mere announcing it on the media that the return to Bama, for example is voluntary, is not enough to say you have acted in accordance with the international convention on the return of IDPs. These people are already traumatised and in dire need; they won’t look at the danger out there while deciding to return. So technically, one is putting their lives at risk because certain criteria are not being followed. To avoid the incident of Bama in which some returnees had lost their lives in a suicide attack on a mosque, days after arriving the town, suggested that they were not well informed of the dangers of possible attack before they were asked to go home,” the UNHCR report further highlighted.
It is believed that if government as well as the international donor organisations could channel most of the resources being spent in the North-east region on bettering the livelihood of the displaced people, most of the IDPs would rather remain till the security operatives tackle the continuing hostilities of the Boko Haram to the barest level, than putting themselves in harm’s way due to hardship.
IDPs like Hamsatu Mustapha have chosen never to return to her attacked community, Konduga, not because she was officially informed of likely dangers that she might face out there. She actually made such decision because she is lucky to be amongst the few IDPs of the over 2.7 million in the host community, who had gotten some kind of financial support that is currently making living as an IDP, a bit easier.