Rebecca Ejifoma, who visited the Uhogua IDP camp in Benin for two days, chronicles the plight of the refugees and how they are adjusting to their new abode
It was indeed a bright Thursday morning at the International Christian Centre, Uhogua in Edo State. I had arrived the centre, which is host to a camp for about 3,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) mostly from the Northern part of Nigeria in a bubbly mood ready to do my beat as a reporter.
The centre could truly be described as beautiful sprawled across a rich, vast and unruffled land. This camp, which was established in 1992 as an abode for orphans, has become a comfortable home for the thousands of IDPs who have traversed the mountains and bushes from insurgent ravaged sections of Northeastern Nigeria.
Although they feed on mostly rice meals that are served with little or no animal protein and pitiful sauce for most parts of each day as breakfast, lunch and dinner, these internally displaced persons who are mostly from conflict areas in Borno State in North-east say they have found paradise in Edo State. At least, they now live many miles away from the incessant gunshots, arsons, abductions, wailings and funeral songs.
Indeed, from where they have come, they feed on the unimaginable and drank from the dirtiest waters just to stay alive. From the experiences of some of the IDPs at the camp, they have endured dangerous ailments and conditions like malnutrition, hepatitis, skin infection, urinary tract infection and acute ulcer among several others.
They were happy to list some of the foods they were being fed at the camp as decent, including beans, rice, pineapple, oranges, potato and vegetables among others, although a closer look at what they call good food shows that, they are fed what could pass for chaff.
Unfortunately, not many lived to share their own stories. Even those who reluctantly shared theirs were either taken for granted or perceived as cooked up. But for the very few who survived and made their way to the IDP camp, they could only heave sighs of relief.
Today, 13 years old Esther Andrews is one bold young girl, who conquered the stings of death against all odds. The camp pastor told THISDAY that she came to the camp at age six. Initially, the trauma was so acute on her that she would scream at intervals like one with a mental disorder.
Although she went to the camp alone after a long period of suffering in the North-east where her family members were brutally killed, she said, Esther seems to have recuperated just fine.
“When Esther first came, she was about six years old. She would scream every night. She would never fall asleep. If she sat in the daytime, she would stare into space and be mute forever. The only times she spoke, it was a thunderous scream – ‘Daddy’ in her dialect,” one of the Supervisors of the camp for missions caring for the IDPs from Adamawa and Borno states, Mrs. Evelyn Omigie (a pastor), told THISDAY.
In Esther’s words: “I came alone. That Saturday they came. They said they were insurgents. My family and I ran. They caught us. They killed my grandfather – cut his hand and his leg. But when they tried to gun us down, there was no more bullets. They then tried to use a machete, it broke. We escaped again. But they caught my mummy. Since then I’ve never seen her till now.”
Truly when compared to what she was eating in the mountains after her escape from the den of her family killers, Esther gave a very long smile accompanied with a transparent laughter that she eats well. “I was eating everything before. I have eaten many things before. I eat good food. I drink water. I eat fruits. And I like here very well. I don’t want to go back.”
Coming from a little girl, who learnt to sleep at nights with eyes opened wide or run away seeking for a place to hide, it is, indeed, a haven. “I sleep all the time now. I don’t hear gunshots again. I don’t see fire everywhere. Fire is not burning. I am very happy now. I don’t run anymore. There is no gunshot in the street. Everywhere is quiet,” Esther added.
Interestingly, Esther dashed a very beautiful grin every time she responded to a question. Her eyes glowed with joy and her English exuded strength.
Swiftly after this, Omigie expressed joy seeing how Esther smiled and spoke. “You can hear her speak today. She is doing very fine now. When she was new here, you couldn’t go near her, she would scream. Because we realised she needed medical attention urgently, we followed her up with prayers and medications. And just one day, Esther began to sleep at night like every other child.”
Lami Beatrice is another young girl. She is 18 years old. She is from Chibok in Borno State. She says she is still waiting for the arrival of her elder sister, Saratu, who was abducted among the famous Chibok girls. “She was in SS 3 ready to write her exam. One day, she came back home and took her things that she wanted to go stay in school.”
Recalling the ordeal that led to her family becoming casualties, Lami narrated: “It was 12 a.m., my father was outside sleeping while my mother and I were sleeping inside the house. When the gunshots began, my father escaped as planned. My mum and I hid behind our house because the insurgents surrounded the place already. The gunshots were coming closer and they put fire on all the houses.”
She recalled that she told her mum that the fire would get to them if they stayed home. “We then ran to the bush where we stayed. But at 3 a.m., we heard wailings from our village at Chibok. We didn’t know what happened to my sister.
“When we woke up that morning, we were told that Boko Haram had carried all the students to Sambisa Forest. My mummy ran to the school. But we did not see anybody, everything in the school was in debris. It had all been consumed by fire.”
Sadly, young Lami says till date, she hasn’t heard of or from her kidnapped sister – dead or alive. “She is 30 years old now. But she hasn’t been released. My parents are still in Chibok. I came here with my other sister.”
Today, however, she is in SS2 having a good time with her books. “I want to become a doctor in the future. I shall write UTME and study Medicine at UNIBEN. When I’m done studying, I want to help those suffering from sicknesses.
“In the mountains and caves after that famous Chibok incident, my dad took me to my grandma’s place where I lived before I continuously eloped into the bushes to cook. From there, the bush became our home.”
Little wonder how most of the children came with unknown diseases that are rare in Nigeria. They, faintly, disclosed the garbage they fed on while traversing the mountains, caves and bushes.
“Sometimes, we ate groundnut in the bush then drank water coming from the mountains. In one village, we stayed in the bush for one month and we stayed for three weeks in another. We used rags as sanitary towels during menstrual flow in the bush.”
Separately, these girls came to life. They saw death. They conquered and are standing tall still. Part of the many nights they experienced was during the about five days each of them had her menstrual flow.
Lami told THISDAY: “Sometimes, I used rags. But while in that bush, my grandma carried some pants for me and a rag. Every time I flowed, I tore a piece from the rag and used. But when there was no more rag, I tore the cloth I tied in the bush and folded it well.”
Now, fortune did not smile on 16 years old Charity Musa while in the bush. She didn’t find groundnut growing around. “We ate those tiny fruits growing in the mountains. But when the fruits were finished, we ate every leaf there. The other girls and I ate every leaf we saw in the bush. We drank every water that flowed in the mountains and caves.”
Undoubtedly, those leaves were flourishing happily in the mountains before the arrival of the girls. And of course, when the leaves were no more, she and the other girls starved for the one year they resided there.
“We stayed in the caves for one year. So many girls died because there was no food, no water – so many. The hunger was too much. We had nothing to eat. I don’t know how my sister and I survived. It was a miracle,” she recounted their ordeal.
Comparing the mountains and Uhogua paradise, Charity’s eyes glowed with confidence. “I am very happy. When I first came here, I did not have clothes. I wasn’t eating good food. Now I eat very well.”
She continued: “At our place, you cannot stay for two minutes and thank God. They will not allow you. But now I come here, I have a chance to praise God. I’m going to school now. In Borno, I wasn’t going to school. I was home always.”
Having been at the camp since 2014, Charity is in JSS1 now. “Now that I’m going to school, I’ll like to study medicine at UNIBEN and become a doctor. I want to treat people who are wounded but do not have money.”
Notwithstanding, Charity gave her reasons for hiding from her prey. “They would capture us if we stayed in the mountains. They kidnap girls and women. They don’t capture men. They kill men.”
Coping with a menstrual cycle like Lami and her friends, she folded rags. “I used pieces I found on the ground. I wasn’t the only one. Some of us used leaves. Some girls tore their dresses and used during their monthly period,” she described.
Emmanuel Andrew is aged 18. He is in Science department in Senior Class 2. He hails from Borno State but now resides in the camp after a narrow escape from the claws of death perpetrated by the insurgents.
Since the virulent insurgency began in 2011, it waxed stronger into 2014 and till date. “Some boys and I hid for days all thanks to a woman. Then we escaped into the bush where we jumped into a river to flow with us to wherever. We flowed to a path where we entered another bush and continued running. That was how we entered Adamawa State where a pastor helped us.”
At last, Emmanuel is done running. “I arrived the camp with two of my younger brothers. But I don’t know the whereabouts of other members of my family.”
Surprisingly, a little delicate yet outspoken child approached this reporter. When asked his name, he replied, “Atangha Leviticus.” Leviticus? Like in the Bible? Weird, I thought.
In the camp, everyone says Atangha is smart and very brilliant. He speaks and understands English even better than teenagers there. Atangha seems to have a very stunted growth. He is six years old but he is very little – like four years old – and too short for his age but very extroverted. And everyone loves him.
Sadly, about 2,400 children are displaced and without family members. Although they are happy, they seemed depressed. Time has taught them to smoothen their plight with smiles. They feign joy for sorrows. Even many, their camp supervisor said, didn’t remember their names; thus, were rededicated with new names.
As a result of the conflicts and escape, their academics were adjourned. They resumed studying after they arrived at the camp; hence, you find boys and girls of ages 18 in either SS 1 or 2.
One common answer that left me amazed was their response to birthdays. They all stared at me like they were from a different planet. “Birthday? I have never done birthday before.”
Gale of diseases
During the two-day tour, I realised that the dwellers – especially women and children – had arrived with varying, precarious health challenges. These were ringworms, chronic malnutrition, ear discharge, malaria, pronounced tooth decay, acute eye infections (completely red and brown), anemia, weaknesses of the body, scabies, skin infections, ulcer, malaria, urinary tract infection, injuries all over the body and head, trauma and mental health among others.
According to Omigie, when these children arrived, they were almost dead. Some had fed on grass and sand for months in the caves and mountains. Others, who fed on same, did not survive to tell the tales of their trials.
They had malnutrition, rashes of all kinds, scabies, injuries, the ulcer was enormous – almost all of them had the ulcer. Some fed on grasses and sand just to survive. They are just too afraid to tell you. But these children fed on sand and grasses for months.
From her words: “They ate so many raw things. Those were things that formed the health hazards in them. We tackled the diseases. University of Benin Teaching Hospital (UBTH) brought mobile clinic here for three months caring for them. Some were taken to UBTH to ensure their health was stabilised.”
Adding, she emphasised that many of the children didn’t remember their own names much less their last names. “We had to start giving them new names.”
Meanwhile, experts have disclosed that about 90,000 children could die this year in Nigeria from severe malnutrition as a result of the civil conflict, severe food insecurity, disease, floods and displacement.
In a meticulous look at the gigantic pot on the triple charcoal stand on the camp, it was filled with over-done white rice. And dishes of all kinds – plates, tins of tomatoes, ancient mini-pots and more – were already filed beside the pot.
THISDAY went further to have a shot. There was very little sauce for the amount of rice there. The sauce is yellowish unlike the red colour you find daily in Nigeria. Although there was neither animal protein nor fish to garnish it, the children were already singing a delightful song in anticipation of their meal. Hunger, indeed, had dealt with them in their previous homes.
Nutrition Specialist of United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Dr. Ada Ezeogu, recently revealed that chronic malnutrition early in a child’s life results in stunting among children under-five. She described stunting as a failure to achieve one’s own genetic potential for height and a manifestation of the severe, irreversible physical and cognitive.
She added: “Children who are stunted have suffered from chronic malnutrition earlier on in their lives as a result of repeated infections, poor feeding practices and inadequate nutrition that prevent babies and young children from getting the nutrients they need to thrive.”
Stunting, according to UNICEF as disclosed in Ibadan this year, is a target of Goal two of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which targets to end all forms of malnutrition by 2030 including achieving it by 2025. This is after its 2017 estimate showed that 400,000 children in North-east Nigeria will suffer severe acute malnutrition in 2017. And these children in the IDP camp are from the North-east.
Their needs and pleas
Rice seems to be a uniform meal – they eat it daily. “We prepare 15 bags of rice daily. They eat twice daily when there is a meal and once when there isn’t much.”
Omigie is elated. “I’m so happy to see DHI and the good work it has been doing here. We call on Nigerians to come and help these kids. We have a lot of challenges. To care for over 2,500 is not easy. They are feeding. We cook 11 bags of rice per meal. But we need brown beans, rice, palm oil, garri, yam, ingredients for soup and stew and all kinds of foods.”
Among the list of needs the supervisor reeled out were: medicine (antibiotics, antimalarial, medicine for a cough, antifungal and many more), textbooks for their elementary and secondary schools among other stationery.
Although they have got five boreholes, their challenge is electricity to get water. She noted, however, that they were not connected to the national power grid; hence, their use of generator set. “The highest we are on is 15KV, which is not able to power the camp simultaneously. We need a solar power supply; at least 500kv generative plant; a transformer to connect to the national power grid; accommodation. “Come build more hostels and furnish it for the kids,” she highlighted.
With a population of over 2,500 persons, the camp is engaged in agriculture to bridge the feeding gap. “Because of the population, whatever we plant is not enough. We need poultry. We have the plan and land but no facility. But we have planted pineapples, plantain and more.”
Uhogua camp has got two medical doctors on the ground, three nurses and a pharmacist in its newly launched health centre.
According to a medical practitioner and President of DHI, Dr. Nkechi Asogwa, “having seen their plight, the Doctor Health Initiative (DHI) gave its widow’s mite. It did free medical check for all in the camp – men, women and children -, it distributed drugs too. Medical experts from the organisation empowered the women and teenage girls on skills like dough and pastries for them to sell and make money.”
She acknowledged DHI as a non-governmental organisation in Nigeria. It is pro-family. It cares for underprivileged and needy people in the society. As a result, it carries out health outreaches to those set of people in the society. One of those topping that list is the IDPs in different camps located in different parts of the country.
Asogwa told THISDAY: “Incidentally, we have visited this camp in the last three years. And I can say that there is a huge improvement in their health status. For the first time, we saw two medical doctors on the ground, three nurses and a pharmacist and a small clinic. There was nothing like this before.”
As a medical practitioner, she disclosed that 80 per cent of the 3,000 population are children. “There are a lot of women and a very few men. Their health conditions are improving. But it could be better.”
She succinctly puts: “What we realised is that they need nutrition. It’s not enough to dish out drugs to them. Quite a number of them are not eating well. And when we investigated into their feeding habit we found out that they feed mostly on rice – breakfast, lunch, dinner and with very little protein or none and very little stew.”
So, in that setting, she said one could imagine that there were adults that are underweight, children with chronic malnutrition. “They are trying their best to be self-supporting. It’s not easy. They are still working on it. They need a lot of help in feeding. If any other organisation could take charge of that, it would be great.”
With this, she called on other medical professionals, pharmaceutical companies to come in. “The doctors on the ground told us they lacked drugs. We gave them what we came with. All they had before was paracetamol.”
Accordingly, she expounded that some of the persons they had checked had malaria, upper respiratory tract infection, urinary tract infection and skin infections. “A good number of them have mental health issues as a result of the trauma they experienced. If they could speak with a medical doctor and get psychological counselling, it could support and walk them through their grief to reintegrate them into the society.”
Undoubtedly, having seen the number of children many of the women came with – 13 competing for the top list – they brought both the men and the women together to sensitise them on family planning and birth control using the natural method.
In Asogwa’s words: “People in the camp approached and asked us to explain the basics of reproductive health to men and women in the camp. A very few of the couples are here and they need it. We taught them the natural family planning method. Fertility education and medical management with no health risk. They responded well and were happy.”
She further explained that because their feeding was poor, DHI resolved to teach them natural methods against any other that may cause bleeding or other possible side effects. “These people could have been our siblings. So, let’s not see them as numbers.”
The NGO president, therefore, pleaded: “I’ll beg and ask Nigerians, governments, corporate bodies and individuals to do something to put smile on their faces and give them hope. Nothing is too little.”
One of the doctors on outreach and public health medicine expert with a particular specialism in health services development in low and medium income countries targeting vulnerable populations, Dr. Enyi Anosike, second the need for psychotherapy.
“The need for psychotherapy and psychotherapists in the camp cannot be over-emphasised. We, as a people, internalise our problems, which if not adequately resolved can be detrimental in the long-term. The level of trauma many individuals have experienced with the violence, death of their loved ones, and loss of property and livelihood means that policy and resources should be particularly focused on the training and provision of psychotherapists to support them.”
With 10 years in the field, he emphasised that a long-term consequence of unresolved trauma in children is that they become susceptible to mental health problems later in life.
“This puts them at risk of not achieving their full potential in adulthood. The overall cost of treatment and maintenance of their health significantly increases. This causes them to be a burden to their families while their prognosis is worsened by a health system lacking the resources to look after them.”
Listing underweight as one of his observations among a significant number of children, he said it could be related to the quality of the meals they are eating. Dietary support via nutritionist input is clearly something that is needed.
Therefore, following the fact that only two doctors are present at the camp to attend to the over 2,500 persons, the camp dwellers ask for more. “Two doctors cannot attend to the large number alone. We need more trained hands for these children and women. Also, we need food and books for their academic growth,” Omigie requested.