The new threat for survivors of Boko Haram

Nigeria, November 21, 2016

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  • Mariam and her children escaped Boko Haram a few months ago, only to be faced with a new crisis: hunger. Mercy Corps is providing families like theirs with cash to buy food, so they can stay healthy until they're able to return home and rebuild their lives. Photo: Tom Saater for Mercy Corps

“They came to our place and surrounded us,” Mariam says. “They surrounded the whole village.”

Boko Haram had taken them captive. In an instant, Mariam and her family were hostages in their own home, their village in northeast Nigeria cut off from the outside world. There was no food. There was no water. There was no help.

They were trapped, their sheer survival left to the whims of one of the world’s most savage terror groups.

“We were Boko Haram’s target,” Mariam says.

Boko Haram held the village for more than three years, until one day, the Nigerian army appeared. They were rushing the village, hoping to retake control. Mariam saw an opening — perhaps the only one she would have.

“Before the area was bombed, we ran into the bush,” she says. “We didn’t bring anything. We didn’t know which town or village we would reach, so we hoped God would help us.”

Desperate and traumatized, Mariam and her six children were focused on only one thing: getting away.

After three days of walking they reached Sabon Gari, a remote settlement northeast of the city of Biu, where they took shelter in one of the hundreds of white, A-frame tents that dot the spaces between permanent buildings. In Sabon Gari, displaced people outnumber local residents 2-to-1.

But distance from Boko Haram has not provided respite for Mariam and her family. Between the plastic walls of their tent lingers a painful reality: Just because you escaped, doesn’t mean you can survive.

After fleeing, the struggle to live continues

Mariam's family forages for firewood to sell on the side of the road for income. "Any time it doesn't sell, there is no food," she says. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

“There is no way we can get something to eat,” Mariam says. “I have no husband, no job. There is no food.”

It’s been three days since her family’s last meal.

Crouched on the ground of her new home, Mariam plucks green leaves off the branches of a local plant used for seasoning. She’s planning to clean and dry the leaves, just in case she somehow finds food to cook them with.

Mariam works to clean leaves from a local plant used for seasoning. Photos: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

“I have nothing to do because every family is the same,” she says. “There is nowhere to beg. All of them are the same, living under the same conditions.”

After years of fear and violence under Boko Haram,1.8 million people are displaced in northeast Nigeria. Many have no thought of when they will be able to return home, if they have any home to return to. In their places of refuge, they have few resources to support themselves.

These waves of conflict and displacement have disrupted planting and forced scores of farmers from their land, plummeting food supplies. The danger of transporting goods means what little food is available isn’t making it where it needs to go, or it’s too expensive for many already-impoverished families to purchase.

More than 4.4 million people are in urgent need of food in northeast Nigeria. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

Already more than 4.4 million people in northeast Nigeria are plagued with hunger, and recent progress by government forces to recapture territory from Boko Haram has revealed dire conditions in communities previously isolated by the group.

The full extent of the food crisis remains unknown — 2.2 million people still live in unreachable areas.

Ensuring families afflicted by Boko Haram can meet their basic needs is a critical first step in helping them recover. For more than two years, Mercy Corps has been providing cash, water and urgent supplies so they can stay healthy and work toward rebuilding.

As more communities become accessible, we are working as quickly as possible to reach more of those in need. And we're committed to staying for as long as it takes for them to put this crisis behind them.

A widespread emergency

"The children are crying for the hunger," Hauwa says. Hauwa once owned her own farm but after being displaced from her home, she struggles to feed her family with inconsistent day labor. Photo: Tom Saater for Mercy Corps

In Sabon Gari, Hauwa looks down at her thin body. She’s lost a lot of weight since fleeing her home with her husband and five children seven months ago.

Recalling that day brings Hauwa to tears.

“Boko Haram pursued us. That’s why we ran,” she says. “We were in the bush two days. We hid ourselves. We didn’t even follow the road because [the insurgents] would attack us.”

“I left everything [behind]. I had goats, I had a cow. I left it there. I have nothing.”

In communities like Sabon Gari, Hauwa and others primarily support themselves by begging, foraging and selling firewood, or laboring for less than $1 USD a day. But it’s not nearly enough.

“The children are crying for the hunger,” Hauwa says. “I work for two days [at a nearby farm] to get one measure of maize, and then that one measure can’t feed us even one day. There are days when we don’t eat at all.”

“When I see my children suffering without eating, it makes me cry,” she says, “especially when I remember how we were before we came to this place. I never lacked anything when I was at home, but now I don’t have anything.”

The signs of hardship are just as palpable on the road south to Biu, a pathway dotted with army checkpoints, a stark reminder that Boko Haram is still a very real threat.

Alongside the pothole-pocked roadway, maize from the surrounding fields has been harvested and laid out on tarps to dry. It’s too early for this though; the maize isn’t ripe. But people are hungry.

Aisha and her four children fled their home three years ago. Boko Haram destroyed their village — they have nothing to return to. Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

“We came here because of the insurgency,” says Aisha, a mother of four. “My two brothers were killed, and my husband too.” She has been in Biu with her children for three years. “I would like to go back home [but] the whole town is burned, including the house.”

In Biu, Aisha supports her family by doing sewing and farm work, when she can find it.

“We manage to live,” she continues. “At times, when I get money, I buy five measures of maize that can sustain us for a couple of days. When I don’t have money, we just manage with what we have. It’s not enough.”

Hundreds gathered in Biu for Mercy Corps' first distribution of vouchers to buy urgent supplies. Photo: Tom Saater for Mercy Corps

Today, Aisha is gathered with hundreds of others to receive a voucher from Mercy Corps that can be traded for food or other goods at the local market.

This distribution of vouchers is one of the only forms of aid the community has received in several years. In total, the initiative will reach around 7,500 people, many of whom have been displaced for years, with funds to support their families.

“There are a lot of things I miss,” Aisha says, “like food. I don’t have food here, on top of many other things. The food is the most important thing.”

With the voucher, Aisha will receive 17,000 Nigerian Naira (about $54 USD) every month for eight months, so she can purchase the things her family needs to rebuild some stability.

But first: food.

As soon as she gets her voucher, Aisha will head to the market to buy rice, noodles, yam and meat to cook for her family.

It’s going to be a special day, she says.

How you can help

You are an important part of the solution. When we work together, we can provide the food people in crisis need to stay healthy, support their families and forge ahead to a better, stronger future.

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