Inmates lack food, water, clothing, health care

From Sylvanus Viashima, Jalingo

Things are bad for many who have lost homes, jobs and self-esteem and have had to live in camps as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).

A recent visit to the Mutum Biyu IDPs camp in Donga Local Government Area of Taraba State highlighted the deplorable living conditions of the inmates. It also showed man’s ability to find joy and contentment even in the most unsavoury places and circumstances.

It is estimated that over four million persons have been displaced by the kiuller Islamist sect, Boko Haram, since it started unleashing terror on nigerian citizens, mostly in Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Bauchi and Gombe states, over six years ago. The complimentary activities of the equally brutal Fulani herdsmen, particularly in the North-Central, further worsened the carnage.

Not unlike the refugee crisis rocking the global community, the IDPs, camped in various locations across northern Nigeria, and elsewhere in the South such as Edo, depict not just the level of human insensitivity to the plight of others but also brings out how much humans are capable of persevering in the face of frustration.

Taraba State has enjoyed relative insulation from Boko Haram’s attacks but has had to contend with ethno-religious and political crises that have left many persons displaced and stranded.

As such, most of the over 10,000 IDPs in the state are either from insurgency-ravaged states or victims of ethno-religious crises iun Taraba that have threatened the very fabric of the state.

There is fragile peace in the state now such that Governor Darius Ishaku has made it a slogan: “Give me peace and I will give you development.”

At the IDPs camp in Mutum Biyu, housing over a 1,600 persons, one is welcomed to the reality of government wastages. The camp is a housing estate that was started by former Taraba State governor, Rev. Jolly Nyame, in 2005, but has not merited the attention of successive administrations. As such, it boasts of uncompleted buildings without basic facilities like window panes, toilets, water, fences and a other services.

This alone makes the experience of the IDPs as a humbling as it can be.

According to Hajia Zainab Alkali, a mother of five and victim of the fighting that broke out in Wukari sometime ago, being an IDP erodes one’s dignity as one has to do virtually anything to survive.

“When I first arrived here, it dawned on me that I could no longer decide for myself. I had to do the things I never would have contemplated doing because they were either against my will or belittled my dignity.

“Now, all that concerns me is how to survive with my children and so there is nothing like shame or principles. I don’t even feel any shame begging for food to feed my children or soap to bath them,” she said.

Another lady who pleaded anonymity told Daily Sun that she had had to trade her body to raise some money; she used some of the proceeds to start a petty business to support her family.

“I met one man shortly after we came here and told him how I lost my dad during the crisis and as the eldest child, I needed to do something to support my family. He pretended to sympathise with me and asked me to see him later. When we met, he wanted to have intercourse with me but I refused because he was old enough to be my father. But then he reminded me of my status as an IDP and told me if I needed his help, the least I could do was to use what I had to get what I wanted.

“It was a sad experience. I had no choice; I had to do what he wanted. The circle continued for a while until my mother and siblings began to suspect my moves. However, they could not ask me to stop because they also realised I was doing it to help the family. From the little I saved, I now buy grains from villages around to resell and make little profit to support my family.”

Whereas the camp leader, Alhaji Ahmed Waliyu, strongly refuted allegations of sexual harassment in the camp, a number of the IDPs confirmed that some camp officials actually ask for sex in return for food and provision.

While the psychological implications of this experience can take ages to supress, other challenges in the camp are just as horrendous.

One major challenge is water. Since the site was abandoned long ago before it was converted to a refugees camp, it has no water source. The IDPs have to depend on a sachet-water manufacturer in the area who often allows them to draw water from his borehole.

But there is a limit to his magnanimity. Using a single borehole for his business and catering for the needs of over a 1,000 persons could be overwhelming. Understandably, some of the IDPs have to spend days without a proper bath to ensure they conserve water for drinking.

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According to Mama Yusuf, “No one thinks about bathing. Is it not when you have enough to eat and drink that you can think of that? What I do with my children is that we take turns to bathe depending on the water available. Sometimes, the boys can go for days without a proper bath. My concern is about the girls,” she said.

Unfortunately, in a bid to sources for water, quite a number of children have lost their lives to reckless drivers as they have to cross the highway to access the borehole.

In response to this, some non-governmental organisations have taken the initiative to provide water tanks and supply water to the camp from time to time. But again, that effort often falls short of demand.

Perhaps the worst challenge is health. The lifestyle in camp, the presence of a collection of deadly reptiles in addition to acute malnutrition translate to a lot of health issues. Unfortunately, there is no medical facility to cater for the IDPs even as lack of funds to foot medical bills compounds the situation.

According to some camp officials, snake bites have claimed quite a number of persons while many children have died from malaria, common cold and other ailments that could have been treated if money were available.

Food shortage is almost a constant feature in the camp. Sixty-five-year-old Hamilsu Ibrahim told Daily Sun that since he arrived at the camp over a year ago, he has not had a good meal and has forgotten what it means to enjoy breakfast: “I cannot remember the last time I had a good meal. There is nothing like breakfast, lunch or dinner. If you are lucky to eat once in a day, you appreciate God.”

Recently, the Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development, Senator Aisha Alhassan, took relief materials, including food items, to the camp. The expectation in the eyes of the IDPs said it all. Other government agencies such as the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), have also taken relief materials to the IDPs but the supplies were far short of demand.

To survive some of the IDPs have decided on other means outside the relief materials and handouts that occasionally come their way.

Mrs. Ibrahim said some now visit recently-harvested farms to gather leftovers mostly from rice and maize.

The woman, who lives with her husband and 10 children, the 10th aged eight months, said that her husband, who was a farmer before they were displaced from Ibi, now worked as farm assistant and did other menial jobs to cater for the children.

Some of the inmates have gone a step further to set up kiosks where they sell provisions to make ends meet. Others make snacks, while some young men hawk sugarcane. The problem with trading in the camp now is that people buy things mostly on credit and refuse to pay.

According to Hajia Hadiza, who operates a kiosk, “You cannot refuse them credit because, at times, you are their last hope. Business here is not growing; however, it helps us to avoid idleness.”

However, the IDPs, women and children, still find the time to come together to play in groups, while the men go out to hustle.

The questions linger: How long would the IDPs continue to depend on the magnanimity of other people for survival? How long can they endure the hardship and loss of their self-esteem? How long would it take before they return to their homes to resume their normal lives?

Camp leader, Waliyu, said, “What we want is to go back home and struggle on our own, to earn a living with some dignity. We are not lazy people or beggars. We are victims of Boko Haram and it is up to government to create the enabling environment for us to return home.”

When Senator Alhassan visited the camp, she assured the IDPs that their days as refugees were numbered and soon they would return home.

She said: “The federal government is doing everything possible to ensure that you return to your homes and continue to lead normal lives, but while you are still in the camps, we would stop at nothing to check the hardships that you have to put up with.

“This is why the President has mandated me to go round all the camps to verify allegations that some of the female IDPs are being sexually harassed by government officials, and to provide you with food items to reduce your hunger and provide you with other necessary materials.”

While these promises have been received with much cheer, it is difficult to say if they are not the usual government rhetoric.

In the meantime, the people the IDPs are in dire need of food, water, clothing, heath care, toiletries and education for the out-of-school children in the camp. Efforts by governments to ameliorate the sufferings of the people seem to be inadequate, therefore, they desperately need the assistance of well-meaning Nigerians to survive.