Escaping Boko Haram: Nigerians' treacherous passage to Chad
Baga SolaMar 20, 2015 - 12:00 am GMT+3
Mar 20, 2015 12:00 am
When Boko Haram attacked the town of Baga in north-eastern Nigeria one night, Moussa Madi ran ran with hundreds of others through the darkness towards the shores of Lake Chad, terrified that he might be captured and killed by the insurgents. By the time the 35-year-old reached the coastline, he had lost his wife and nine children in the chaos. He also saw that he was too late: There were no boats left to take him to safety on the other side of the lake, in neighbouring Chad. As the sound of gunfire drew closer, Madi forced himself to wade into the water. He hardly knew how to swim. "I walked into the lake and tried to get to the nearest island," Madi said. The danger of encountering an aggressive hippo in the murky depths frightened him, Madi said, as did the possibility that he might not make it across. "I held on to reeds when I was tired," Madi said. "I was afraid I would drown."
Sani Abdulhamid also jumped into the water that night, carrying his two youngest children on his shoulders. His 15-year-old daughter Fatima had to fend for herself behind him. "The water was already up to my throat when a man pulled us into a pirogue," the 40-year-old shop owner said. He recalled the desperate cries for help of those who didn't find space in any of the boats as bullets whizzed past his head. "There were hundreds of people in the water," Abdulhamid said. "We had to leave a lot of people behind." Other refugees spoke about bodies floating in the lake the next morning. Madi managed to reach a small island close to Nigeria's side of the shore. He hid there for two days, until a fisherman rowed him nearly 50 kilometres across the lake. After five days on the lake, weak from drinking the muddy water and surviving on raw fish, Madi and the fisherman reached the island of Kangalam on the Chadian side. Madi and a group of other refugees were rescued there by boats hired by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). They were brought to a refugee camp in Baga Sola, in western Chad, where they are housed with about 7,000 others in simple tents pitched in the desert. Now they wait for the day that they can return home.
Hundreds of people were killed when Boko Haram attacked the town of Baga and surrounding villages in Nigeria's north-eastern Borno State on January 3. Thousands more fled the violence. A constant stream of refugees has since flown into Baga Sola, a desolate Chadian village in one of the harshest and poorest environments on earth. According to the U.N., as many as 7,000 refugees are stuck on the more than 100 tiny islands and peninsulas within Lake Chad. Not only is there little potable water and food on the islands, but Boko Haram is also thought to have infiltrated the islets to launch attacks on Chadian soil. Owners of motorized pirogues take off in search of refugees almost every day. But it's a hazardous job: Nobody knows where the insurgents hide or when they will attack. "There is no security on the islands," said Abali Madou Ali. The pirogue owner said he rescued 86 refugees, mainly women and children, just a few days earlier. "I am scared," Madou Ali said, "because I know of boat owners who had their throats slit [by Boko Haram]." As a precaution, the 31-year-old turns off the motor long before reaching an island, hides his boat in the reeds and loads refugees as quickly as possible.
Chadian authorities have become painfully aware of the threat of Boko Haram attacks from within Lake Chad. There have been three attacks on Chadian soil in the past eight weeks: one on the village of N'gouboua in the Lake Chad region on February 13, and two others on Kaiga-N'gouboua, 15 kilometres further north, on February 28 and March 4. In a desperate attempt to control the situation, local authorities issued a ban on the use of motorboats with few exceptions. The army has been placed on high alert, and troops patrol the shore and use checkpoints to control all non-motorized pirogues. "No boat arrives or leaves without my signature," says Baga Sola deputy district chief Dimouya Souapebe. The population is nonetheless scared, he said.
Meanwhile, dozens of northern Nigerian refugees arrive in Baga Sola each week. "Many arrivals haven't eaten for days and arrive in a terrible physical state," says Idriss Dezeh, a UNHCR refugee camp manager in Baga Sola. "One woman stepped out of the boat, collapsed and died immediately." Madi is one of the lucky ones. He was eventually reunited with his family, who fled via the land route, first north into Niger and from there south-east into Chad.