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Catholic Charity Documents Harrowing Encounters of Boko Haram Victims in Nigeria

Pastor Solomon Folorunsho, Coordinator of Home for the Needy in Nigeria’s Benin State poses with a section of displaced children at the camp. Credit: Denis Hurley Peace Institue

For years, Jeraiva has fought to rid his mind of the harrowing images of his youngest brothers being burnt to death while they were sleeping in their house in Bauchi, a State in Northern Nigeria.

Jeraiva (not his real name) sometimes lies awake in bed all night and recalls the fateful day in 2014 when, at only 14, armed militias attacked his village, setting houses on fire and killing everyone they met. Families were separated and for the eight years that the 22-year-old has stayed at Home for the Needy in Nigeria’s Benin State, he has never met any of his family members who might have survived the attack.

Earlier this month, Jeraiva told Catholic charity and peace foundation, Denis Hurley Peace Institute (DHPI), that it was, in fact, a miracle that he survived the attack and fled south to the facility for people who have been displaced by Boko Haram militants and Fulani herdsmen in the north.

“How I got here was a miracle,” he said, and added, “My entire house, not only me but many people’s houses were raided and burnt and we didn’t have any safety anymore. My family members fled to different directions…Everybody was on their own.”

“They burnt my house and two of my younger ones were burnt alive in the house, because when everybody fled, the two of them were still sleeping in the house. So, the people set our house on fire and the two of them got burnt to death,” Jeraiva recalled.

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Days later, he learnt that his mother and some of his siblings had been kidnapped alongside other villagers and were being held captive in the ill-famed Sambisa forest.

Aged 14, Jeraiva braced himself for the huge task that lay ahead of him, that of facing the huge world and taking care of himself.

“I was always trying to survive; I didn’t know anybody; I was moving from place to place; I ate anything I could find, and slept anywhere, even in the bushes.”

He had no money and he moved from community to community, he recalled, adding, “I never settled anywhere before militants came and drove the people away, destroying houses, maiming men and taking women with them.”

“With this movement, I have seen a lot, especially dead bodies and I have felt a lot of fear. I have been seriously traumatized. In fact, I thought I would turn insane after what I have seen,” Jeraiva narrates to the peace entity of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SACBC).

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In the narration that the leadership of DHPI shared with ACI Africa, Jeraiva adds, “For a long period of time, I wake up at night and have flashbacks of what I have seen, making me very afraid. I didn’t hear from my family, any sibling or relative, I was on my own.”

Luckily, Jeraiva met a Pastor who narrated a place that welcomed children who had been through experiences such as his, where they had something to eat, a place to sleep, and people to call family.

The place sounded like heaven to the boy. He says, “Safety was my ultimate desire. I didn’t know how I could get to this place. I didn’t have a phone; I didn’t have any means of communication; it was only the Pastor. So, I decided to come close to the Pastor and told him that I wanted to go with him to the place.”

Unfortunately, the bus that ferried people South was full and so, Jeraiva had to wait for long before he squeezed himself in a car that got him to Home for the Needy in Benin State in October 2014.

For most people who arrive at the Home, the desire to finally find peace has been elusive as they continue to fight the traumatic experiences they all have been through.

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“If we all sleep at night, everyone wakes up and starts shouting; dreams and the traumas are coming at night; everyone starts shouting ‘they are coming, they are coming’, and this has caused a lot of problems at the camp,” Jeraiva narrates, adding that with informal psychosocial support provided at the camp, his painful memories have begun to ebb away.

But other challenges such as serious food shortage and lack of medication persist for the thousands of displaced people who have found a new home at the camp.

“Currently in the camp, it is not that we have food scarcity, we don’t have food, and that is the issue. We sometimes beg for some help from people, come to our aid, come help us, we don’t have food to eat,” the 22-year-old narrates.

“When people come to the camp and bring a little food, that is what we eat for the whole camp,” he says, and adds, “The main problem we have in the camp currently is food and funding for our education.”

He says that it is common for the refugees, especially children, to go down with malaria and fever at the camp that is highly infested with mosquitoes and only has a single ill-equipped clinic.

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The SACBC peace entity, which is monitoring the evolution of violence in a number of African countries, has reported widely on the situation of Nigeria which the Catholic organization has described as “a gathering storm.”

During the first two weeks of September, DHPI sent a representative to Nigeria to assess the situation, especially the land occupation by Fulani in the South East of the West African nation.

The IDP camp at Benin City hosting IDPs mostly from Borno State who have fled Boko Haram attacks, was visited. Also visited were villages in the Diocese of Ekulobia, which covers Anambra State, one of the areas most affected by Fulani attacks.

The representative of the Catholic organization gathered harrowing tales of people who had lost everything to Boko Haram militants and armed Fulani herdsmen, including a mother whose husband and five-month-old son were slaughtered while she watched.

The woman who was still traumatized told DHPI representative that she had not seen her other children who had also fled in years.

Pastor Solomon Folorunsho, Coordinator of Home for the Needy, told DHPI representative that the camp, started in 1992 to provide a home for street children, vulnerable children, orphans, is now taking care of more than 3,000 displaced persons and children.

“Between 1992-2012 we had more than 700 persons living with us and it was quite challenging to feed them; they were barely eating once a day and then we created a school for them; they are going to school hungry,” Pastor Folorunsho narrates.

The Nigerian Pastor continues, “And in 2013 we got calls from displaced Christians in the Northeast of Nigeria who were displaced from their homes by terrorists called Boko Haram; their parents were killed, mothers raped and murdered.”

Pastor Folorunsho also learnt that children who were able to escape ended up in the bush, forests, and some drowned in the rivers.

Still, others were eating sand and leaves to survive after walking for hundreds of kilometres, the Pastor says.

“From that time, more than 3,000 IDPs have flocked down to this place from the Northeast,” he says, adding that victims of insurgency who arrive at the facility have all undergone deeply traumatizing experiences.

“When they came, they were so traumatized, they were afraid, they trusted nobody, they were afraid of everything, every sound made them run,” Pastor Folorunsho says.

“Sleeping at night was a big, big, big challenge; in fact in the night, they would dream and see the things that happened to them before and then they start to run, thinking they are still in the places and there would be commotion,” he says.

The Pastor adds, “So we taught ourselves to night guard, we are not sleeping, we watch over; in fact, for more than one year even two years it was terrible for all of us that were caring for them.”

“Nothing prepared us for this; we had been caring for children that were raped, neglected, rejected but nothing prepared us for children, who saw bloodshed, who saw murder, who saw rape, who saw abduction or burning of their houses,” he further narrates.

In addition to the food and health challenges, children at the Home also struggle to access education with limited facilities.

“Imagine 20 children using one textbook... Out of these children today, we have 97 students in various Universities in Nigeria who are studying medicine, law, engineering courses, so many courses, and every one of them wants to become something,” the Pastor says.

He continues in reference to the children from the Home, “Some want to become missionaries; some want to become doctors, lawyers, but now the challenge is how will we feed them? Hunger is a major problem at this centre, to feed the children is a challenge.”

DHPI representative has said that visiting the Home for the Needy camp, which is overcrowded with over 5,000 IDPs struggling to survive was “a heart-breaking experience.”

“There are health hazards everywhere,” the peace foundation reports, adding that the camp has only six toilets for everyone to share with no clean water and only a few boreholes.

There are also no formal houses and everyone is forced to make sleeping arrangements with materials they can find and all fit under the few roofs available in the camp, increasing the risk of infections and health hazards, DHPI leadership says in a report shared with ACI Africa.

Additionally, there is a health centre, which has no medical supplies or treatments available, including the fact that no one is qualified with the appropriate training.

“There is a desperate need for training programs and volunteers to be implemented into the camp for both medical and teaching requirements, as there is a lack of teachers, leaving the children without access to basic education,” DHPI leadership says.

According to the Catholic charity foundation, camp coordinators also need training in psycho-social care, as many people arrive at the camp with trauma from past experiences and need the relevant care.