Memories of Boko Haram’s murderous spree in his Nigerian hometown haunt Tom Gowon, 9, as he sits on a patch of grass at a refugee camp, sipping steaming porridge from a plastic mug.
“I was lucky because I was not killed,” said Gowon, recalling the assault on Baga, Nigeria, in early January. “But they shot and killed my father. My mother was kidnapped by the militants.”
Children such as Gowon bear the brunt of Boko Haram’s rampage since its fighters kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls last year and conquered enough territory to declare a caliphate that covers one-fifth of Nigeria.
Where the militants have met resistance, they’ve torched villages and left piles of corpses in their wake.
“There are several camps around here housing many children who have lost their parents in attacks,” said Guy Nanhousngue, a Chadian relief worker who said children comprise about half of the Nigerians coming to the Baga Sola refugee camp on the shores of Lake Chad, which separates the two countries. “We’re registering more than 50 children every day.”
In recent weeks, a multinational force involving troops from Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria has escalated the fight against Boko Haram, even retaking some towns from the militants, who declared allegiance to the Islamic State this weekend.
The chaos has displaced more than 1 million Nigerians, creating a wave of refugees that include 157,000 people who have fled to neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. About 17,000 people are in Chad, according to the United Nations. The vast majority of the refugees are women and children.
More people would seek refuge at the camp if families weren’t trying to navigate 40-mile-wide Lake Chad. “Many of them are dying en route trying to cross,” Nanhousngue said.
Refugees who try to circumvent the lake often meet the same fate, said Seid Abdullaye, a Chadian official who oversees the Baga Sola camp. The walk through deserts and wetlands at the edge of the lake can take days or even weeks.
Those lucky enough to finally reach their destination can breathe a sigh of relief.
“Once they reach the camp, their safety is guaranteed,” Abdullaye said. “We are protected here with Chadian military, and we’re not worried about any kind of attacks.”
But their future is increasingly uncertain: The camps in Chad are bursting at the seams. Shelter, food, medicine and other supplies such as mosquito nets and cooking equipment are running low, Abdullaye said.
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SOURCE: USA Today – Tonny Onyulo