Thirty-three-year-old Sarratou will never forget the day when dozens of heavily armed men ambushed her village in Nigeria’s Borno State. It was 10 o’clock in the morning and she was at home with three of her four children. The gunshots rang in their ears as they hastily embarked on a 12-kilometre trip on foot towards the Cameroon border.
At the time, her husband and their eldest son, 10-year-old Ibrahim, were caring for their cattle on the outskirts of the village. Although they tried to flee, there was no escape. “My husband got too tired. He was exhausted and could not continue running,” Sarratou says. “Boko Haram caught up with them, and they cut the throat of my husband, in front of our son.”
Ibrahim fell down on his father’s body and started to cry. But he had little time to grieve. One of the insurgents took out his machete and struck the boy’s skull. “After he cut me on the head, I fainted,” recalls Ibrahim. “I could not move. I later dragged myself under a tree for shade. They came back again, they lifted me, they thought I was dead. They dug a hole and threw me in it and covered me with sand.”
Today, several months after the dramatic incident, the large scar on his head is a painful reminder of what the boy had to endure.
Two days after the attack, Ibrahim’s grandmother and sister, 13-year-old Larama, came back from the border to look for him and his father – while Sarratou, who felt depressed and anxious and had stopped eating, was in hospital being treated for hypertension. As they looked around the razed village, Larama found her brother in the nearby bush.
“I got tired, sat down under a tree and something with flies caught my attention,” Larama recalls, her voice trembling. “It was a human being.” She remembers that only part of Ibrahim’s head was surfacing above the sand. “I was scared. I took courage. I tried to talk to him but he was just nodding. I asked if it was the boy, because ‘boy’ is the nickname of my brother – we call him boy. He nodded – it was him! There was this wound on his head and bloodstains all over his face.”
“I told them, ‘He is not dead – he is alive!’ ”
Gathering her strength, she dug him out of the sand and carried him on her back to the village. “I was tired but I had to manage. When people saw us, they asked where I was taking him. ‘I am taking him home,’ I said. ‘But he is dead already, why are you carrying him?’ they said. I told them, ‘He is not dead – he is alive!’ ”
It took four months and half for Ibrahim to recover in a hospital in Koza, Cameroon. “The doctors and nurses were nice to me and the food good.” Upon his release, the family moved to Minawao camp, 90 kilometres from the border. Opened in July 2013, it now hosts some 33,000 Nigerian refugees.
Many Nigerian villages along the border have been attacked and burnt to the ground in recent months. Several survivors said they knew some of the attackers, that they were part of the village communities and affiliated with insurgents prior to the attacks. “But what could we do?” says one refugee in Cameroon.
At least 1.2 million people have been displaced within north-eastern Nigeria since May 2013, when a state of emergency was declared in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe States. More than 100,000 have fled to Niger, while as many as 74,000 have sought refuge in Cameroon and at least 18,000 in Chad. Deadly incursions into Cameroon have also displaced some 96,000 people, according to authorities, including many shepherds and farmers.
“We know that they kill the men, kidnap women and children and steal cattle, so we decided to leave our village and move away from the border before it happens,” says Oumanou, 40. Three months ago he left his village with 20 other families and trekked for several days to reach the outskirts of Zamai village, near the town of Mokolo in the Far North region, where they built huts made of straw and bamboo. “It is fine for now,” he says, “but when the rainy season starts, the water will go through and we’ll be flooded.”
Like Ibrahim and his family, everyone in Minawao camp has a tale of exodus or violence to share. Many fled in fear, while others survived physical assaults or witnessed extreme violence on families or friends. Some have been kidnapped.
“The need for psycho-social and mental health support is huge,” says Jodin Obaker, a psychologist for the International Medical Corps, which runs the health centre in Minawao. However, such support remains limited in the camp due to lack of funds and qualified staff, as well as cultural caution about mental health issues.
“Children are paying a heavy price,” adds Obaker. “Some withdraw completely, they keep everything inside, they don’t communicate anymore. They are traumatized by what they went through.”
Little by little, Ibrahim has been recovering. Even though his mother says that he has changed a lot – that he often looks sad and walks with a limp – the boy has also started to smile again. He goes to school, where he likes the English classes, and he plays football with his big sister and little brother. “And I have a best friend,” he says, proudly. But only time and care will tell how fully the invisible scars, the souvenirs of the attack he carries within him, will heal.
Some months after the attack Sarratou went back to check on the family home in Borno. “Everything is burned,” she says with resignation. Some of the villagers who escaped after her told her that the insurgents came with jerry cans filled with petrol and doused every house before setting them on fire.
“There is nothing to come back to for us,” she laments. “Insurgents had also stolen our livestock: seven cows and 13 goats. Here in Cameroon, I have food and water for my children, they can go to school, we have shelter, and we feel safe. We will not go back to Nigeria so easily like that. To me, this is home here in the camp. I don’t think of leaving this place as of now.”
WRITTEN BY HÉLÈNE CAUX