Niger's forgotten war: 40,000 refugees flee as conflict escalates
Halima prods my knee to make sure I'm paying attention. "We people from Bosso are warriors, we're famous for that. We never flee. We've been attacked ten times since last February and we never fled. 20 years ago there was a local rebellion and fighting swamped the town. We didn't flee then either. But 3 June was different. And now here we are."
The 41-year-old mother of six starts bustling around. My colleague grins after receiving a warm greeting from her. "I know Halima from Bosso," he explains. "Everyone knows and respects her, she's one of the female leaders of the village."
At home, in the south east corner of Niger, Halima headed a lot of the women's savings groups whilst also selling ice on the side. Her husband, Ibrahim, was an assiduous paprika farmer. "She's very busy, she never sits down," my colleague laughs.
Despite everything she's been through and everything she has tragically lost, she's still keeping busy. During our visit she's getting ready for her shift volunteering in one of the medical tents in this sprawling settlement for displaced people.
Halima works with the nurses to help detect whether children are suffering from malnutrition. This myriad of huts has sprung up since the attacks on 3 June. She tells me about what happened in Bosso, her hometown right on Niger's border with Nigeria that was attacked by hundreds of militants just one month ago, forcing 40,000 people to flee into the bush.
"They killed two people right in front of us so we just ran into our houses and locked the doors.
They were burning down the houses and slaughtering anyone in their way.
"Many refugees from Nigeria were seeking safety in our village and had been guests in our home. When the attack came, the people from Bosso locked up their houses. But the refugees fled: some of them were killed, others hid in the bush. We just closed the house as best we could and we stayed like statues all that time.
The children were shaking and crying with fear. I had to tell them not to cry as the more they did, the more the militants would hear them.
"I told them to pray and keep calm and quiet. I'd never seen an attack like this before. We knew it was different because they went for the chief's house. Normally they leave that alone, but this was different. They burnt his house right down to the ground along with nine refugee huts beside it, burning all the families inside. One of the girls had a new-born baby.
I can't describe the fear we felt that night. None of us thought we would get out of there alive.
"Twelve hours later, finally, it fell quiet and we crept out. I could see out of the corner of my eye that there were burnt houses and burnt bodies but I didn't hang around to look. I ran. The children couldn't move out of fear and we had to drag them with us, carrying them on trailers or on our backs. We didn't know if the militants were still there so we didn't take anything with us, we just ran."
She stops bustling and pauses, one hand on her hip, the other on her chest as if catching her breath. She estimates about 100 people died just on the journey to where they are now staying. "We weren't able to give them a proper burial, we just covered them and had to continue walking. Some of the women managed to save some water by putting drops of it on their veils and sucking from that.
Myself, I didn't think about being hungry or thirsty, I knew I just had to keep on walking.
I ask her about the small trailer that's resting, somewhat discarded, outside the hut. She looks at it and tuts. "Ibrahim, my 12-year-old boy was really struggling to walk he was so tired. So we carried him on our trailer. But after a while, the tyres broke. There are some people that will make money out of anything and, because we were desperate, we had no choice. So we paid some men to drive us from Guba to near here. It's just 25 kilometres but they charged us 416,000 Francs. That's well over 140 times the normal price."
The strain in the settlement is visible. Just a few weeks ago the people from Bosso were getting ready for harvest. Now, they've been forced to uproot their families and flee their homes, unable to save their crops which have by now either been burnt or looted. Conflict has driven them to where we're standing, in the middle of Niger's scorching hostile wasteland where water and food are already scarce commodities.
This is no life. We're all still afraid of attacks as we hear that there are armed groups nearby. The children wake up in the night screaming.
Halima says, "I want them to have a future: to go to school and have an education so that they can be something later on. But today, I just want some food to cook and my own mat to sit on."
Right now, CARE and other humanitarian agencies are trying to keep up with the increasing needs of people displaced by conflict in the Lake Chad region. My colleague, Abba, tells me about how we're responding: "Apart from life-saving food and water, we've ordered thousands of toy kits for the children to play with in our 'child-friendly spaces'. They need a place where they can just feel like children again. We've also constructed separate latrines for men and women so the women have privacy and can feel safe. Some of the people are so tired and traumatised that they can't walk so we've sent trucks to the towns they're fleeing and bring them to the settlements here."
They're simple but vital pieces of support for the people here. But what they need more than anything is to feel safe. The UN has stated that at least one out of every two people in the entire Diffa region has been forced from their home because of conflict.
The Niger government and NGOs need sustained and substantial funding to respond to this rapidly increasing crisis. Concrete commitment must be made to ensure Halima, and thousands like her who are now refugees in their own country, not only receive emergency aid but are given the tools to provide for themselves again and rebuild their future.
Some names have been changed. This story was first published on the International Business Times website.
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