Life under Boko Haram:

Survived on water and insects

NIGERIA: Hadiza Mohamma sits exhausted on the earthen floor. She arrived at the reception centre yesterday. All Hadiza owns are the clothes on her back and a plastic bag with necessities just given to her. Forced to flee her home more than a month ago, she has been surviving on water and insects.

Hadiza decided to flee when men from the armed group Boko Haram beat her up. They discovered that she had gone to gather firewood without their permission. The village where she lived, Bisge, is located in the north-east part of the country and has been under the group’s control for two years.

Between 2002–2009, the armed group Boko Haram, was a protest movement against corruption and underdevelopment. In recent years, the group has been split into factions such as the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) and Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad (JAS).

 “Life was terrible. We lost all our freedom. Every time we wanted to get water or firewood, a member of Boko Haram had to come with us. Young girls were forced to marry, while young boys became child soldiers,” says Hadiza.

Read caption Everything Hadiza owns in this world is what lies in front of her on the carpet. She received the toiletries at the reception center in Dikwa. Photo: Beate Simarud/NRC

Escaped in the night

"Most Boko Haram soldiers left the village at night and returned in the morning. So, many in the village tried to escape under the cover of darkness. That’s what I did along with three of my grandchildren and their two mothers."

But they became separated. Hadiza ended up alone. Starving and thirsty, she visited two villages during her flight. But conflict makes people fear all strangers, and she was chased away. She had to drink water wherever she found it and ate larvae, beetles and grasshoppers for protein. A month after fleeing the village, she was discovered by soldiers who brought her to the reception centre in the town of Dikwa.

NRC provides shelter

Boko Haram controlled Dikwa for six months in 2015 and 2016 before a joint military force with soldiers from Nigeria and neighbouring Chad and Cameroon drove them back in February 2016.

Read caption Baba uses his hand to illustrate the gruesome punishment he was subject to under Boko Haram. Photo: Beate Simarud/NRC

Dikwa had 80,000 inhabitants before the armed group took over. Now, the town holds 120,000. Jonathan Vandu, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s (NRC) field office coordinator in Dikwa, says that the eleven employees are under a tremendous amount pressure and that new refugees are arriving all the time. NRC provided shelter for 600 families in November alone, but lacks the land to build more.

Terrible punishments

At the reception centre, Hadiza’s is one of many stories about life under Boko Haram: If you stole, your hand was cut off. Infidelity was punished by stoning. And if you smoked, you were whipped.

"We tolerated it all, but when there was no more food left, we had to flee," says 70-year-old Baba Mele.

He fled on foot. The village he lived in, Ngubdori, is still under the armed group’s control. Along the way, he saw cars being stopped on the road and passengers being killed. Baba came to the reception centre nine days ago, and for the first time in a long while, he has enough food to eat and he feels safe.


Read caption Baba Mele says that everyone in the village he comes from, Ngubdori, has now fled because of the conflict. Photo: Beate Simarud/NRC

He witnessed many times the punishments doled out by the armed group in the areas they control. It wasn’t just theft and infidelity that were punished. If you tried to escape and were caught, you were killed. If you tried to hide in someone’s house and were discovered, everyone was killed.

Scars from a Nigerian reality

He has big scars on his leg. "These are knife wounds," he says.

The scars are wounds from another ongoing conflict in Nigeria. Baba is a farmer and belongs to the Kanuri people. He got the knife wounds when he was attacked by one of the Fulani people, who are cattle herders. The struggle for resources between ethnic groups with different patterns of life has increased in a number of places in Nigeria. Both climate change and the displacement of cattle herders from the areas in the northeast towards the south are reigniting old differences.

Baba is getting old and tired. But for the first time in a very long time, he is safe.

Read caption On inspection in the Modu Kaza camp where NRC was the first organisation to establish projects. Photo: Beate Simarud/NRC

Our work in Dikwa

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) started working in Dikwa in 2017 and was among the first aid agencies in the area.

We have:

  • Set up 1,300 shelters and repaired 1,450 damaged houses
  • Set up 240 latrines and shower facilities
  • Distributed soap and other hygiene articles and provided hygiene information
  • Set up water pumps
  • Distributed food and emergency articles
  • Supported food production and irrigation systems

The relief work in Dikwa suffers from a lack of funding. There is too little money for food, education and protection measures against violence and sexual exploitation. For example, there are only three schools in the area.