* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Conflict between Boko Haram and Nigerian Army has forced 1.5 mln to flee their homes, broken families and killed thousands
"They came into the church and opened fire indiscriminately."
"When I heard the shooting in the village, I knew I had to flee to save my life."
"I was kept in captivity for six months."
These are just some of the stories that people affected by the conflict between Boko Haram and the Nigerian Army shared with me when I visited the camps for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the towns of Yola and Maiduguri in northern Nigeria.
The conflict in Nigeria has left thousands dead and has forced more than a million and a half people to flee their homes. Many have been kidnapped, including more than 200 students of Chibok in April 2014. Today, IDPs continue to seek refuge in other parts of Nigeria and neighbouring countries such as Cameroon, Chad and Niger, turning this into a regional crisis.
The latest report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) showed that this is one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies in the world today.
FACES OF VIOLENCE
Natisa Mohammed was two months pregnant when Michika, her hometown, was attacked. She was in captivity for six months until she managed to escape during one of the numerous clashes between Boko Haram and the Nigerian army. The stress of her ordeal caused her water to break while she was fleeing. A man helped her give birth and took her and her baby to an IDP camp in Yola. She is still living there, raising her son Auwel, whom she named after the person who saved their lives.
In order to survive, Natisa’s husband fled with the other men of the village. She was left alone with their four children, while he sought refuge in Niger for a few months. He is currently living in another IDP camp in Maiduguri.
Natisa dreams of her husband meeting and hugging their son in the near future. However, until that day comes, she must recover from childbirth and captivity, and manage the little money she has to pay for food and water, visits to the paediatrician and mosquito nets to avoid malaria.
Natisa suffers when she remembers the violence that she witnessed and the faces of the people who died during the various attacks. She also wishes she could send her other four children, who came with her to the camp for displaced people in Yola, to school.
In the next-door shelter built by the ICRC, Swyiman Sanusi, a polite, humble man, is living with his family. Despite the ordeal he has gone through, he never loses his smile.
A teacher in Gulak and a father to five children, Swyiman saw his life change completely on the afternoon of Friday, 5 September 2014. On his way home from work, he began to hear gunshots and then saw bombs falling around him. Arms carriers came looking for the men of the village, so his wife asked him to flee immediately. Swyiman had to walk more than 100 kilometers with hardly any food and water until he arrived in the town of Mubi.
Swyiman tells me that, while he was hiding in the bushes, he repeatedly thought of turning back to be with his family. He felt like a coward. After trekking more than 15 kilometers, scared, alone and in the middle of the mountain, soaked by the rain, he decided to turn around. At that moment, he received a call from his wife, Maria. He could hear shotguns in the background as he told her he was heading back. But Maria would not let him. She encouraged him to keep going and told him that they were going to reach him soon. Maria and the children were getting ready to run away as soon as they had the opportunity.
Maria managed to escape before dawn on 9 September 2014 with three of her five children. The other two went missing on the day their village was attacked. She walked with her three children for three more days under the heavy rain until they reached the main road and found a van heading to Mubi. There she found her husband and discovered that a man had brought her two other children, whom he found crying on the road.
The Sanusi family lived in Mubi until 29 October 2014, when they were again forced to flee after violence broke out. Swyiman and Maria, along with their five children, trekked over 400 kilometers, climbing mountains on foot, without much water or food to seek refuge in Cameroon. They settled in an area with more than 400,000 people all affected by the violence in Nigeria.
Cameroonian authorities provided the Sanusi family with water, food and a place to sleep. A few weeks later, they were taken to an IDP camp in Yola, where they have been living for nine months and receiving assistance from the ICRC.
The Sanusi family are managing to get by because Swyiman is still receiving his salary from the Nigerian government even though he is no longer working due to the state of emergency in the north. The government continues to pay salaries as a form of assistance for people displaced by the violence. However, his salary, 20.000 Naira (US$ 100), is not enough to give his family a comfortable life in the IDP camp, so Swyiman has been trying to start a small business to better support his family and other people in the camp. Every week, he gathers all the children in the camp and gives lectures so they can continue with their education.
Swyiman is aware of the severity of the conflict and continues to be grateful for the support he and his family are receiving from the ICRC. In some places, the Red Cross is one of the few international organizations present on the ground since the conflict began. So far this year, the ICRC has distributed food and household necessities to more than 260,000 people in Northeastern Nigeria and 65,000 people in Niger.
But the dimensions of the conflict are increasing and the needs are growing exponentially. Therefore, the ICRC has increased its budget by $60 million, which is more than double its humanitarian response across the four affected countries. This has made this region the third largest humanitarian activity of the ICRC worldwide, just after Syria and South Sudan.
The ICRC aims to provide access to food and basic necessities to over half a million displaced people in the region, improve access to drinking water and sanitation, and provide medical assistance and surgical equipment in emergency zones.
MUCH TO BE DONE
With the close arrival of the rainy season, the situation will bring new challenges, such as the threat of more diseases. It is therefore important to act quickly to improve basic sanitary and hygiene conditions, and alleviate the suffering of the victims of one of the biggest conflicts that Africa is facing at this time.
The recent peaceful elections have improved people's expectations for the country. However, the incessant violence in Maiduguri and Yola, the distant but constant sound of gunfire, and the attacks to nearby villages continue to remind us that the conflict is still very much alive.
This conflict is having a devastating effect on many small communities in northern Nigeria. Buildings, roads and homes have been destroyed. The livelihoods of hundreds of families have been lost, and the dignity of those affected has been stripped. Deep physical and emotional wounds have been inflicted on the civilian population.
Every member of the international community has a fundamental role to play in helping to heal those wounds. We must increase efforts to come up with a lasting solution to this conflict so that displaced people can return home and resume a dignified and peaceful life in their communities.
Jesus Serrano Redondo is an international delegate at the International Committee of the Red Cross.