My week spent in a limbo-city with Boko Haram refugees
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23-04-2018 | di COOPI

My week spent in a limbo-city with Boko Haram refugees

What follows is a reportage by Ottavia Spaggiari, published on the April 2018 issue of Vita, on her trip to Chad to visit the COOPI food security project financed by AICS (the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation).


Bienvenue a Bol, ‘Welcome to Bol’. As we drive past the rusty sign that gleams in the African sun, our driver from COOPI, the only Italian NGO operating in Bol, can’t help but laugh and repeats the greeting out loud, with the ironic tone of voice of someone who knows full well that few places are less welcoming than this. The few cars on the road are UN jeeps and those of Medecins Sans Frontieres, as if to highlight the entrance to the heart of what the The New Yorker described as ‘the world’s most complex humanitarian disaster’, a crisis where the instability of a highly fragile country and the climate changes that have turned the lives of those who live here upside down have been made worse by the emergency caused by Boko Haram, the terrorist group operating in areas near the border with Niger and Nigeria and on the islands of Lake Chad, a group that has devastated entire villages, killed thousands of people and forced tens of thousands more to seek refuge on the mainland in areas that have not yet been attacked, such as where we find ourselves now. ‘They came in the night and destroyed everything,’ says Hawa Qual, a 35-year-old mother of seven children while we sit under a straw parasol along with a dozen other women from the Flatari refugee camp, only a few miles from Bol. Here, COOPI offers psychological and psychiatric assistance to Boko Haram survivors. ‘I knew how to swim. I swam and swam to get my children safely on shore. Then I would go back and get the others and start again.’ When I ask the translator to tell her in her own language that she has been remarkably strong, she smiles the sad smile of those who believe that their own story, in a situation like this, is nothing special. ‘It isn’t strength, it’s survival. I did what anyone would do.’

Here on Lake Chad, extraordinary tales are commonplace, every single refugee who managed to save him or herself has one. Abu Bkar sold farm produce before his island was attacked. He used to ride his dromedary to reach the markets on the mainland where he sold his produce. ‘My wife and I were sleeping when we were woken by gunshots and screams. We managed to escape by riding our dromedary. We crossed the lake and travelled for days to get as far away as possible. We survived but our dromedary died from hunger and exhaustion. We lost our land and that animal was all we had left.’ The number of accounts like those of Hawa and Abu are increasing on the lake. Ever since Boko Haram started expanding its sphere of influence across the border of Nigeria in 2014, reaching as far as Niger, Cameroon and Chad, over 2.4 million people have been forced to leave their homes, seven million are at risk of food insecurity and 120,000 are at risk of famine.

It is a patchwork humanitarian crisis that is scattered piecemeal across different borders, ethnic groups and governments, involving 10 million people in these four countries. In Chad, there are 137,136 refugees, 88% of which are internally displaced persons, while 11% are what are known as ‘retournées’, people who emigrated to other regions or bordering countries many years ago in search of a better life and have been forced to come back by the violence. Only 1% of the refugees are people who have taken refuge here from the other countries where attacks take place. According to the IOM (the International Organisation for Migration), there are over 14,000 internally displaced persons in Bol.

At the end of the world

‘You feel like you’ve come to the end of the world,’ says Ricky Salumu, COOPI’s logistics coordinator, and he’s right. The only safe way to get here is via the World Food Programme’s small propeller plane, which transports humanitarian aid workers from the capital, N’Djamena, three times a week. It’s a 40-minute flight that crosses Lake Chad at such a low altitude that you can clearly make out the places on the islands where villages have been destroyed by Boko Haram from the window. There are currently three different epidemics raging in the area: meningitis, cholera and typhoid, and one small hospital with just two doctors tries to treat a population that has almost tripled in size following the arrival of a wave of refugees over the past three years.

‘Since we came to the lake with COOPI, we have started working with local authorities and communities,’ says Salumu, a Congolese national by birth and Dutch citizen by adoption, with many years’ experience in humanitarian missions in Africa and Haiti. He was the one who set up the two COOPI bases in Bol and the office in Baga Sola, the town hit by the 2015 attacks when two suicide bombers blew themselves up in the market. ‘A security committee has been set up in each village in order to identify new arrivals who don’t come from around here,’ explains Salumu. ‘We are still on high alert, but while the curfew for our aid workers was set for 7pm two years ago, we have now managed to shift it to 10pm, three hours later.’ It is a small sign of improvement, even if the level of risk for those who live and work here is still high, so high that we were forced to delay one of our visits to the camp by two days. An infiltration by Boko Haram had been detected 150 kilometres away. Nevertheless, those who work here never look worried. In a situation like this, where there are no dirt roads, just desert and wilderness in the places closest to the lake, 150 kilometres is really quite a long distance. ‘I have never felt in danger,’ says Freddy Bigabwa Birheganyi, a Congolese psychologist who has been based in Bol for over a year, heading COOPI’s project to offer refugees psychological aid. ‘However I am perfectly aware of the situation. If they wanted to, they could attack us at any time.’ The faith that many aid workers feel manages to keep them calm without falling into the trap of naivety. ‘Our staff constantly monitor the security situation,’ says Fabio Castronovo, an agronomist who came here a year ago to manage the food security project that COOPI has set up in the area with the help of the AICS (the Italian Agency for Cooperation and Development). ‘At the moment, things are quiet, but this is an extremely fragile country. Tensions are not just linked to the risk of terrorism. The state is cutting back public spending and has recently also cut the wages of the armed forces who patrol the most dangerous areas. Some border guards, as a protest, have abandoned their weapons along the road.’ Although the army’s protest is the most extreme example, it is by no means an isolated case. Many teachers, who haven’t been paid for months, are no longer going to work. Lessons have been postponed for the foreseeable future and children are staying home. ‘It’s nothing new,’ says Castronovo, ‘this often happens in Bol.’

Resurgence starts with the land

The situation has been made even more critical by food insecurity, which isn’t just affecting refugees. Local people are also at risk. According to the latest UNICEF report, acute malnutrition in Chad is running at approximately 12.2%, whilst chronic malnutrition is around 36%. Over the past 50 years, the lake – which is the main means of sustenance for those who live in the area – has been receding at an accelerated rate, until it is now less than a tenth of its original size. Over the past year, rainfall has diminished by 30%. Access to water for the local population, mainly made up of peasant farmers and shepherds, is a daily battle, the difference between eating and going hungry. ‘We have decided to call ourselves “souffrance”, suffering, because working the land is very hard and there is no harvest without hardship,’ explains Abbakr Abbami, president of one of the 40 ‘groupements’, associations that group families of small farmers to whom COOPI provides agricultural aid, while he proudly shows me the fruits of his labour. The field is teeming with life: tomatoes, lettuces, courgettes and potatoes. ‘But water is still the most urgent issue for us.’

Nevertheless, this green and luxuriant field doesn’t look like it has been salvaged from the desert. The only clue to this struggle are the smiles of the farmers who work there, who bear the signs of the heat and strain on their faces. ‘Thanks to COOPI, we have built a water supply system, we have received new certified seed and expert agronomists have trained us,’ adds Tahir, explaining that today the harvest not only feeds the farmers’ families: enough is left over to take to market and the profit, though modest, is reinvested in the field, in order to buy tools and pay for the water supply system’s maintenance. ‘Even our eating habits have changed, we eat more vegetables and we have maize for making flour. Our wives can prepare bread and cakes.’ Tahir’s story is one you hear repeatedly among the small plots of land near the lake. Here many people are familiar with COOPI. Every group consists of 25 members, each of which represents a family and, if you calculate that on average each family consists of six people, it means that the COOPI project is having an impact on the lives of around 6,000 individuals. ‘It’s been hard. We suffered together with the beneficiaries of the scheme, but we are starting to see results.’ Agricultural production is not the only aid provided by COOPI in this area. Sophia Gharbah is 25 years old and has four sons. ‘When Boko Haram appeared we ran away. We walked for three months looking for peace. We started off again every time we felt we were in danger,’ she tells me while we talk in her mud-and-straw hut, in the tiny village of Kikina, near the lake, 40 minutes’ drive from Bol. Originally from a village on the border between Chad and Nigeria, she was forced to flee with her husband and children. Sophia is one of the beneficiaries of another COOPI scheme where 390 women in particularly vulnerable circumstances were entrusted with three goats each, a male and two females, with a view to creating small livestock breeding farms. Fifteen percent of the women involved in the project are déplacées and rétournées. ‘Until a short time ago, we had trouble eating more than once a day. Things are a bit better now and we manage to eat twice a day, plus we have milk. Even if there’s not enough food, there’s always milk to drink, which is really important for the children.’

No looking back

In such a complicated area, the organisation has also launched an educational and protection-providing scheme in nine of the country’s over 100 refugee camps, running alongside the projects providing psychological assistance to Boko Haram survivors and the food security programme developed for locals as well as refugees. ‘In the morning, this becomes a school, while in the afternoon we carry out psychosocial activities,’ says Charlot Dabra Serfebe, the programme’s head, whilst in a tent in the Kaya refugee camp, 20 minutes’ drive from Bol, we watch dozens and dozens of children sitting on the ground, intent on colouring in drawings. ‘They escaped from the attacks, from the violence, they have seen it all. We use games and drawings to detect any trauma or distress and plan the right kind of assistance.’

Children are starting to talk about the future again

COOPI has contributed to creating community protection groups in the various different camps, raising awareness among adults of the most problematic issues: from gender-based violence to child marriage.

‘It is a committee made up of an equal number of men and women, tasked with monitoring the community and contacting us in case there are situations of distress or cases of violence affecting women or under-age children. To date, we have handled 102 cases and in 95% of them children were involved, most of whom were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, while some were victims of child marriage.’ Protection involves counselling work and medical and psychological assistance. Here children also manage to attend school, and the teacher is one of the refugees. ‘At the moment, we have 60 children but we are constantly receiving requests for admission. Parents want to send their children to school. Many people previously lived in remote areas where there weren’t any schools, and for many families this is the first time that they have had such an opportunity.’ Hawa Aqual, who escaped from her island to the Flatari camp, confirms this statement. ‘I don’t know how to read or write, but my children can go to school here,’ she says. When I ask her if she is thinking of returning to her island now that it has been freed from Boko Haram, she freezes. ‘You can’t go back.’ ‘Her memories are too awful,’ adds Bukar Usuman, one of the few refugees at Flatari who can speak French, and who acted as translator for the occasion. Having escaped from a village on the border with Nigeria, together with his two wives (polygamy in Chad is common), his nine children and another dozen people from his village, he agrees with Hawa. ‘We lost everything. I was a farmer and now I no longer have a field, I have nothing. At least here, there is peace,’ he says. ‘We feel safe. Even if terrorism were no longer a danger, I would never go back to my village. There’s a school here. We are illiterate but now our children are learning.’ Life is very hard at Flatari, it seems impossible to find shelter from the desert’s stifling heat and water is still a precious asset. And yet for many of those who have come here, the refugee camp is their first unexpected chance to find an opportunity to improve their future. ‘It is a very complex situation. On the one hand, most refugees have been through and seen it all. Terrible trauma, inhumane violence. There are people who saw members of their family killed before their very eyes,’ explains Freddy Bigabwa Birheganyi, COOPI’s Mental Health Project Manager. ‘However, for many of these people, the fact that they find themselves close to a new town and able to go to school for the first time, these are things that are changing their perspective,’ says Freddy. ‘We are starting to hear children talk about their future plans when the future seemed something unimaginable before. That’s the other side of this tragedy, proof of how extraordinarily resilient human beings can be.’

-Ottavia Spaggiari