The military presence reminds us that the conflict is not far away. From Damasak, it is just five kilometres to the Niger border and 200 kilometres to Maiduguri, the capital of the Nigerian state of Borno. Since 2009, this area has been severely affected by the conflict between armed groups and the Nigerian government.
Boko Haram controlled this town for over half a year from the end of 2015. It wasn’t until February 2016 that a joint military force from Nigeria, Cameroon and Niger managed to drive them back. Many civilians began to flee already in 2014. The fierce battles that followed led to great devastation and forced the rest of the population to flee.
NRC started working in Nigeria in 2015. There are over six million people who depend on life-saving humanitarian aid in North East Nigeria alone.
We distribute food and provide support for food production. Food shortages and malnutrition – especially among children – represent major challenges.
Our education projects are much more than ABC. Especially in rural areas, very few children have access to schools and illiteracy is widespread. Education provides hope, bridges the differences between ethnic groups, normalises everyday life and gives children the opportunity to process traumas.
NRC gives displaced people the opportunity to set up latrines, as well as to build new homes and restore partially destroyed houses by paying them for their work. This gives people dignity. Latrines are important for improving hygiene and preventing the spread of diseases. This is essential for preventing cholera outbreaks.
We also provide legal assistance to people who have lost their identity papers or if there is a dispute over property rights.
We run various training courses and provide modest start-up capital so that people can manage on their own. This could be a sewing machine for those who have completed sewing courses or tools for those who want to become craftsmen.
In 2018, NRC provided life-saving humanitarian aid to 250,000 displaced people in Nigeria. But the humanitarian situation is still critical. In particular, the lack of food, clean water and education for children are the main challenges. Our main goal in 2019 is to reach out and provide assistance to many more of those who currently do not receive any help.
Many are completely without help
Today, the original Boko Haram is divided into different groups. Currently, ISWAP (Islamic State West Africa Province) controls many areas around the city.
"In October, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) had to close our office for a short period because of an attack on a nearby village. In November, there were new attacks on other villages," says Dibal Isaac Jonathan, who coordinates NRC’s relief efforts in Damasak. "Our biggest challenge is to reach all those who need help. People who are more than 20 kilometres away from the edge of town, many of whom have been forced to flee their homes, are beyond our reach."
No money for food
NRC’s 24 employees work under great pressure. "We lack money to set up latrines, which is very important to prevent outbreaks of cholera. And we also we lack money for food, which is precarious. For the next two months, many families run the risk of not receiving anything," Isaac says in exasperation.
Still, there is hectic activity in Damasak. New houses are being built and others are being repaired. Although there is a lack of funds, people’s will to keep going is impressive.
Most of the people who are here now lived in the town before Boko Haram attacked, and they began to return home in 2017. But many are also living in the town temporarily. They are farmers who dare not return to their villages if they are more than 20 kilometres away.
The traces of war are very visible. The communication tower was blown up. It is lying on the ground, fenced off for fear that there are mines in the area. The ATM has been burnt and the streets are open sewers. A visible proof that NRC’s work to set up latrines is important. The struggle to prevent cholera outbreaks has clearly saved many lives.
Mental wounds heal slower
Although the physical wounds of the war are gradually healing in Damasak, the mental wounds of war persist. People are afraid of new attacks, suicide bombers, and how they will manage from day to day. The conflict continues right outside the town limits. Just a few weeks after our visit, a military helicopter was shot down near the town and several nearby military bases were attacked. If we are to prevent North East Nigeria from becoming one of Africa’s many long-standing conflicts, the first step is to cover at least the fundamental humanitarian needs of people forced to flee their homes.