By Ali Abare Abubakar – Special to The Washington Times
MAIDUGURI, Nigeria — Buji Abdullahi and his family managed to escape the deadly attack on his village by the militant Islamic group Boko Haram, but then he lost his young son to another scourge sweeping through the relief camps in northeastern Nigeria: a desperate lack of food.
In a land where people have endured more than their share of tragedy and loss in recent years, the specter of famine is posing a cruel new threat.
“I watched my 2-year-old son, Hashimu, die from hunger,” said Mr. Abdullahi. “It was sad, but there was nothing I could do to save him.”
His loss reflects a humanitarian catastrophe in the making in the country’s Borno State and other parts of the region where the Nigerian military has been battling the radicals.
The France-based Doctors Without Borders recently reported that hunger and malnutrition threaten hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people like Mr. Abdullahi and his family, who are taking refuge in camps in Borno State. In one camp in Bama, malnutrition and sickness claimed 200 deaths in a month, and a fifth of the children who remained were malnourished, the organization said.
“In several locations, people have sought refuge in towns or camps controlled by the military, and are entirely reliant on outside aid that does not reach them,” the group said in a statement. “The mortality rate is five times higher than what is considered an emergency, with the main cause being hunger.”
Officials fear the crisis could spread to millions of refugees in Nigeria and also Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
The United Nations Children’s Fund last month issued a dire forecast indicating as many as 75,000 children could die from a severe lack of food in Nigeria in the next year if donors do not respond quickly to the needs of refugees who have fled to the camps during Boko Haram’s seven-year campaign to build an Islamic caliphate.
UNICEF nutrition chief Arjan de Wagt told The Associated Press that the humanitarian crisis in the region is perhaps the worst in the world. Malnutrition has affecting up to half the children in some areas, he said.
Officials said this month that up to 2 million affected people in the region have not been contacted, “and we can’t assess their situation,” said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Toby Lanzer. “We can estimate that it’s awful.”
Boko Haram is an Islamic State-affiliated jihadi group that condemns all Western ways as forbidden by Islam. Its fighters have kidnapped schoolgirls into slavery and waged a war that has left 20,000 people dead and an estimated 2.6 million uprooted from their homes in Nigeria and its neighbors.
Some of the refugees in Nigeria have fled to camps established by the government. Others, such as Mr. Abdullahi, sought relief in makeshift facilities set up by local communities. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are also living in camps in bordering countries.
With help from its neighbors, the Nigerian army has driven Boko Haram back from the areas the group once occupied. But the jihadis are still active in some areas, and refugees are reluctant to go home for fear of more violence.
Refugees and aid workers said anticipated government help never arrived in some cases, and food from relief groups was stolen and sold in the marketplace for profit in other cases. Family members have taken odd jobs, including sex work, to pay for food when it is available.
Looking for government aid
Mr. Abdullahi, whose family settled in a camp hosted by the community of Benishiek about 60 miles from Maiduguri, said the government has brought food only once in the past two years. “They visited us with a promise to come back, but we never saw them,” he said.
He fled his hometown of Abulum after Boko Haram fighters killed 15 of his neighbors in a raid.
“Everyone was running away for his life,” he said.
Without government aid, the 60-year-old retired railroad worker said he and others like him are working menial jobs to get food for their families. “After spending weeks without food, I took to chopping firewood to support my family,” he said.
Allen Manaseh, a project manager with Adopt A Camp, an aid organization in Maiduguri, said refugees in the host community camps are especially vulnerable because of the camps’ unofficial status. “The host community’s camps are on their own,” Mr. Manaseh said. “Some have been receiving assistance. You will see camps that nobody has ever visited. These are points where you will really see people in critical need.”
Life isn’t much better in the government-controlled Shagari Low Cost Internally Displaced Persons camp in Maiduguri, said Bitrus Yakubu, a camp resident who said he could barely feed his family even though he is working.
“I lost all my means of livelihood when I fled from my village, Pulka,” said Mr. Yakubu, 41, referring to his small hometown near the Cameroonian border. “Now I survive on filling sesame seeds into bags. Most times, however, I watch my children go hungry for days. It’s getting past three months since we last received a food donation.”
Sarah Ndikumana, Nigeria country director at the International Rescue Committee, reported last month that “we are seeing many women and children each day with acute malnutrition, which is often coupled with complications such as malaria, tuberculosis, and other life-threatening illnesses. Witnessing this need inside Maiduguri only confirms the urgency with which we need to get things moving at scale in other, previously unreachable areas.”
Jack Vincent, Borno State coordinator of a local aid group, the Social Welfare Network Initiative, said refugees complain of hunger even in government camps, which organize almost daily deliveries of food from international relief agencies. The food marked “not for sale” sometimes finds its way to market, he said.
“Let me tell you something: In Maiduguri, in our local markets, we see not-for-sale items displayed,” Mr. Vincent said. “Some people have been caught on film rebagging these products, which are collected from a particular area and taken to another for sale for profit-making.”
The Nigerian government has said it would investigate reports of stolen food.
The scarcity of food led one 32-year-old refugee to trade sexual favors with camp workers in order to feed herself and her two children.
“My husband was killed when the Boko Haram raided Gwoza,” said the woman, whose name is being withheld because she is a sexual assault victim. “I have been in the camp since 2014. It was difficult feeding myself and the children. We were so hungry, and I was left with no option than to give in to the demands of a cook who rewarded my services with food.”