I once worked and lived in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta where I hooked up a British woman who was of similar age, with a similar professional background so we had much in common. That common background and comparable experiences enabled a quick transition from acquaintances, to solid friendship. Mel was a good looking women with flaming red hair, a quick turn of phrase and a wicked sense of humour. However, one significant difference was that she had a Romanian husband, who happened to be more than 15 years her junior. This kept Mel permanently obsessed in trying to look younger so that the husband wouldn’t stray. She had sourced and investigated every plastic surgeon, nail technician, beautician, dietician and hairdresser within a 100 kilometre radius of Jakarta. When we would meet socially at weekends, she would regale me with blow-by-blow details of lotions, potions, cures and the cost of the latest available treatments.
An extensive choice of therapies and treatments is typical of most Asian countries, where many of the wealthy classes are preoccupied with enhancing beauty and maintaining youthful looks. It’s also a region where you’re as likely to walk into a beauticians and find more men than women having deep facial cleansing; for some reason I was always felt more than a little uncomfortable lying on a therapist’s bed beside a strange man….I digress. The wide choice of available treatments is matched only with an equally generous selection of charlatans offering therapies.
I arrived one day to meet Mel holding an airline magazine with a story about some therapy that didn’t require surgical intervention. When I showed it to her she dismissed the article and began to rave about one particular acupuncturist who held a practice on the other side of the city. Mel swore that after attending his clinic several times she dropped a full dress size. In addition, this miracle man could tighten sagging facial skin using acupuncture – in other words, a face lift without a scalpel.
My curiosity was sparked and Mel suggested we make an appointment. Battling my weight since childhood, losing a dress size was always met with keen interest. I couldn’t believe my luck that there was also the additional bonus of a face lift without a scalpel and that there may be a ‘cure’ for an increasingly severe nerve pain in my foot, where I had suffered a fracture a few years previously.
Mel booked an early Saturday morning appointment so we could avoid some of Jakarta’s notorious traffic. When we arrived, I’m not sure what I expected to find, but was taken aback to find a room was packed with about 30 therapists beds, with just enough space between each bed to allow the acupuncturist move between clients. I couldn’t have been closer to these strangers if we were sleeping in the same bed.
Pins and needles
With my limited Bahasa Indonesian and his limited English I explained that I wanted to lose a few kilogrammes and would be very happy to reduce the (ahem), laughter lines on my face. I was asked to expose my belly, so opened the zip on my jeans. The acupuncturist proceeded to place needles all over my tummy before inserting more needles in my jaw and around my eyes. In a room packed full of Muslim women, still holding onto their modesty by wearing hijabs ensuring their hair was not exposed to a strange male, but all exposing pin-filled bellies and covered with needles sticking out of their face, the absurdity wasn’t lost on me.
I felt like a voodoo doll once I was all pinned up and proceeded to explain the pain I was experiencing from the pinched nerve in my foot. The therapist nodded sagely, then making a circle with his thumb and middle finger, he looked through the circle as if it was a magnifying glass, moving up and down my leg before honing in on the problem area of my foot. Raising his index finger in the air he announced there was a devil living inside my leg and it would need to be exorcized. I could see several heads raised on the beds with curiosity as the therapist began sucking in deep breaths over my foot, throwing his head back, he exhaled deeply with his head angled towards the ceiling and repeated this action several times. From my reclined position all I could see was the pin-filled bellies of the other women shaking as the supressed giggles could no longer be supressed and rose to full-blown belly laughing.
Despite being the source/object of such great hilarity, I dismissed any feelings of embarrassment and returned for further ‘treatment’ two weeks in a row. On the fourth Saturday when the bathroom scales had somehow stubbornly stuck on the same weight, I tackled the therapist asking when I could expect to see some weight loss. “Do you eat dinner?” he asked. “Of course, I eat my dinner,” I responded indignantly. When he suggested that in order to see some results I was to skip dinner, I decided at this point, enough was enough. I was paying out good money to have needles stuck in my tummy every Saturday morning to lose weight when all along it was just a simple matter of….skipping dinner? It was the skipping dinner suggestion that helped in my decision not to return and waste energy sitting in Jakarta traffic each Saturday morning.
I eventually managed to achieve a small measure of success in the weight loss department by eating less and exercising more, without the need for acupuncture. I have to admit though, the laughter lines multiplied in the proceeding years, so much so that my face could be mistaken for a map of Ireland, without makeup for camouflage.
Funny thing was the nerve pain in my foot miraculously disappeared, never to come back again.
Mel and I had several more adventures before I moved on to work in other countries and we lost touch. Mel managed to track me down several years later on social media. Our lives had taken different paths but we kept in touch. She had however, lost the battle to hold on to the younger husband. No amount of pins, potions or lotions could save the marriage when the Romanian found a young lover and discarded Mel like a used acupuncture needle.
PS Mel returned to the UK and sadly succumbed to breast cancer in the summer of 2020. She was a sweet, gentle soul who was a great friend and a great source of entertainment in an otherwise big and lonely city. May she rest in peace.
I worked as a humanitarian in conflict and post-conflict situations, through famine and the aftermath of earthquakes, typhoons and tsunami. My first mission as a humanitarian was the Indian Ocean tsunami response in Indonesia. This set me off on a course, that I never imagined as a youngster growing up on Dublin’s northside.
In September 2009 I found myself working for the coordination arm of the United Nations in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. For the most part, non-government organisation workers and UN staff, lived in guesthouses on small compounds around the city. In the early hours of the 28th October, Bakhtar Guesthouse was attacked by three Taliban. When I stepped into the garden that morning to go for breakfast I became aware of the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Over the top of the compound walls the billowing smoke rose high into the sky, matching my increasing sense of fear and panic. My stomach knotted and descended into my shoes as I felt the blood drain from my head.
Five colleagues, two Afghan security guards and a civilian died that morning.
A stop was put on all staff movement as we went into immediate lockdown, unable to leave the compound. Information on the situation was sparse as senior management scrambled to inform headquarters. The logistics teams went to work to evacuate the injured. Two of my own colleagues jumped from the roof of Bakthar guesthouse to the roof of the neighbouring building, both breaking their ankles.
As the news made headlines across the globe, the TV became our main source of information. There was a sense of frustration not knowing what was happening to colleagues. Real fear that we could be the next target, created tension and incredible stress for the residents inside our compound. Adding to the stress was the fact that the telephone network crashed. Colleagues became desperate to make contact with loved ones at home to reassure they were okay. I seemed to have the only working internet connection so my room turned into the equivalent of an internet café with a queue outside in the first 48-hours after the attack.
Winter, which can be brutal in Afghanistan, hadn’t yet arrived. We gathered each day in the fading rose garden, comforting each other on the loss of colleagues and putting together pieces of information gleaned through various sources. Those afternoons in the garden became therapeutic as we spoke of our grief, our fears and our families at home, all the while transitioning from familiar acquaintances to friends.
My time in Iraq was not so different. In Baghdad we lived on a compound in windowless containers, packed high with sandbags for protection. Each container had a Tannoy that triggered when a rocket was headed in our direction. We were frequently woken by the automated response with a mechanical voice repeatedly shouting “take cover, take cover, take cover.” Our personal protection equipment consisted of a helmet and a 10 kilogramme bullet proof vest, which we dragged to and from work each day. Concrete shelters to provide protection in the event of an attack, dotted the empty roads of the ‘Green Zone’ – the diplomatic area of Baghdad. On more than one occasion I froze in fear lying in bed listening to the rockets land across the Tigris River and thinking they were inside the compound.
Colleagues acted differently to this daily level of stress. Some choose to disengage and rarely left their containers except to go to work. Others choose to gather after dinner in the area outside the canteen known as the piazza, pulling together tables and chairs around the large yellow swing. There we found our tribes and consoled each other when the stress of living in confinement and fear became overbearing.
Being confined to barracks in Ireland is somewhat different to lockdown in Iraq or Afghanistan. There is the pure luxury of an early morning walk when the sun is re-introducing itself, as it slithers around Howth Head when I march down the Clontarf seafront. Daily meditation helps me cope with the fear of Covid-19 and I increasingly appreciate the safe space my own home provides. When I lived in Kabul, my wise Australian colleague and friend would take out her lipstick when the going got tough. She believed that when we had our lipstick on, we could put the world to rights. Before I step outside the door each morning to take my walk, I take out my brightest red lipstick and apply liberally.
My contract in Nigeria finished in January so I left a few days before Christmas, taking all my holidays. I was happy to leave in one sense, the constant human misery in the north was taking its toll but I have to admit I was more than a bit torn; there was also a part of me that wanted to go back and help highlight this crisis for the 5 million plus people facing starvation. Five million people – that’s more than the population of Ireland. Trying to create interest in the humanitarian situation was difficult in Nigeria itself, let alone among the international community.
The decision to return was taken out of my hands so with a three month break under my belt, it almost came then as a bit of ‘light’ relief to find myself boarding a plane back to The Stan (Afghanistan) after a seven-year absence. Memories merge in my brain between my time in Afghanistan and Iraq, another duty station where freedom of movement is restricted because of insecurity. I can hardly complain about the tight security in Afghanistan considering there was sweet fanny adams in terms of security measures in place in northern Nigeria where Boko Haram, the local jihadi group, run riot.
There are a few differences; in Kabul I don’t have to negotiate traffic each day as I did in Nigeria. We live and work on the same compound. I reckon it’s probably less than 100 steps between the living quarters, small restaurant and the office – it takes just three minutes to walk the inside perimeter.
I can’t make up my mind whether the compound is more like living in an open prison, a convent or a home for alcoholics as there is zero booze to be had in country at the moment and the people coming back from their R&R are welcomed with open arms by inmates almost emptying out their suitcase on arrival. Nigeria in comparison has no taxes on alcohol; so the excellent South African wines were at giveaway prices. If you compare accommodation in Kabul it’s a thousand times better than anything in Nigeria – the compound is located in the former Dutch Embassy – (the Dutch couldn’t afford the horrendous rents that come with war zones, so the UN took it over). There is a small restaurant where lunch is around $5. There’s also a pool and decent gym in the basement.
The gym is unavailable to women between 4.30 and 7.30 pm when the local male staff have access. In this supposedly deeply conservative society it’s not kosher for men to see any part of a woman’s body. My preference is to rise early, usually by 5.30 a.m. and be in the gym by 6 a.m. It’s all about timing and routine – the cup of green tea, checking the emails… if I miss my imaginary deadlines it just upsets me for the day. The boss decided to call a very early morning meeting not so long ago, upsetting my timetable resulting in a missed exercise schedule. I skipped (figuratively not literally) out of the office during lunchtime to catch up. The national female staff began pouring in and the door, normally left open, was firmly shut behind them. They arrived in long coats and scarves and disrobed once inside mostly to reveal regular gym gear under the coats. Scarves were whipped off as they inspected hair and makeup in the mirror, and preened themselves before their workout! One or two had pinafores over the gym clothes, which always looks strange to me to see somebody on a treadmill in full garb.
There are several UN compounds scattered around the city, the furthest being on the Jalalabad Road out towards the airport. It’s one of the most dangerous roads in the world with horrendous traffic and there are plenty of opportunities for bad people to attach magnetic bombs to cars while stuck in traffic. One of our own staff members was driving to work not so long ago when a suicide bomber across the road decided to blow himself up and while my colleague was thankfully unharmed, he was very upset that there wasn’t a window left on his car.
Most of my journeys around Kabul involve going to and from meetings. I can understand why there is an R&R cycle to allow people a break after six weeks of living in lockdown! The lack of freedom of movement gets to you after a while so even being stuck in traffic allows you to observe life and I could happily sit for hours in a traffic jam (albeit always looking over my shoulder) and just watch people and behavior. What’s fascinating though is to watch the traffic at roundabouts – there are no rules. Rather than taking the third exit off a roundabout, it’s normal to see cars just going in the opposite direction to take the shortest route possible. Like many other countries in the region, it’s not unusual either to see a car careering down a highway travelling in the opposite direction to every other car on the highway so you need nerves of steel.
The general security situation hasn’t improved much in the seven years, a recent report says there were more people killed last year in Afghanistan than Syria and that’s saying something. It is believed that the BigT (Taliban) has control of more than 40 per cent of the country and there doesn’t appear to be abatement in the numbers of insurgents or their strength. The Americans and British are still around and the sound of military Chinoook helicopters crossing the skies several times a day can be heard long before they’re seen in Kabul. The US picked the Easter weekend to target the ‘mother of all bombs’ in the east of the country where they believe ISIS to be hiding out in caves – no doubt increasing the likelihood of counter attacks on foreigners. I have a few friends who live out in the compound close to the airport and sometimes I take the work-shuttle to go and hang out on a weekend. This is much more like a village than a compound, although still surrounded by t-walls and heavily secured. Sitting outside with an Irish friend, eating pizza I noticed that many of the aircraft flying over the compound had no lights.… a little bit worrying. My friend pointed out that these were military planes and in fact when you looked up as they passed over, the bombs attached to the underbelly were clearly visible.
While life goes on, Kabul is still a city under siege. Since my last visit, it’s striking the increase in the number of t-walls that surround buildings, blocking them to the average citizen and giving a very strange atmosphere to the city. The t-walls are mainly protecting Government buildings, NGOs, embassies and UN compounds. Of course apartment buildings where the ordinary Afghani lives, (if they are lucky not to be stuck in a tent somewhere), don’t have the luxury of t-walls and hence very little protection – it’s impossible to get a sense of the architecture though around the city centre. In the compound where I live, there are regular drills to the bunkers and the doors on each accommodation room is Taliban-proof so you can’t leave the key in the lock or it will take security an hour to drill through if they need to gain entry in an emergency. The windows are also bullet proof (see photo of my room with the cracked glass – I’m not even going to think how that got there). While you try to live or pretend that you live a ‘normal’ life, there is always something that brings you down to earth and reminders that this is a very abnormal life and situation.
We’re allowed to visit Spinneys and Finest supermarkets but can stay no longer than 20 minutes. Back in 2009/2010 these supermarkets had windows and I remember a time coming up to Christmas there was a mannequin of Santa Claus in the window ‘playing’ a saxophone. I think the BigT were more than a bit pissed off with that because there was a major attack on Finest in 2011 and eight people lost their lives. Now, the windows are boarded up and going into the supermarket is the nearest thing to boarding a flight these days, where you’re frisked and your bags are searched on the way in. Almost everything you need can be bought in the supermarkets, okay there is difficulty in accessing pork (but I’m not a big fan), however most other things including the big brands are easily available – even some decent Irish cheddar cheese. Magnum ice creams are a nice treat for a Friday afternoon, the first day of the weekend.
Around the city, there are many more burka-less women about and about. Indeed, it’s not unusual to see women without male escorts, although a colleague informed me that single women out on their own on the streets are generally hissed at as if they are prostitutes. Remember that Kabul is a city where women wore mini-skirts in the 60s and 70s. There also seems to be many more girls at school, identified by their black uniforms and white headscarves. When I was here seven/eight years ago it was really unusual to find women out on the streets at all and you would mainly see them first thing in the morning going to work as cleaners. Just a week ago there were women sweeping the streets outside the compound and an Afghan female colleague said it was the first time she witnessed women working outdoors. Change is slowly coming, but I’m not so sure that women’s ‘liberation’ has moved much beyond the centre of Kabul. Once out on the Jalalabad Road, most of the women wear burkas so I can only imagine this phenomena is unique in the city.
There is no doubt that women have a tough life in Afghanistan and I for one am very glad I wasn’t born here. Shamshia cleans my room and brings me some of the local flat bread three days a week. She had a nasty fall at work and her arm was bandaged up so she had to take a week off, but returned with the arm still in bandage to continue working. I felt so guilty about her having to work with a strapped up arm that I began cleaning my own room to give her hand out. Now Shamshia calls with bread and I get a big hug and a kiss on each cheek three times a week. Somehow I don’t think the contractor provides sick pay for staff. While I wouldn’t envy Shamshia’s lot, she at least has a job unlike the poor unfortunates who are begging, walking up and down between cars on the roads.
In 2015 I went to the regional consultations for the World Humanitarian Summit in Tajikistan. There was a gender meeting, mainly about women and women’s rights. In the middle of the meeting a professor from the University of Kabul stood up and announced that everything was okay in Afghanistan before these women started looking for an education. Everybody was so shocked the room went silent. I’d like to report that men’s attitudes have changed, but I find little evidence and not much evidence among the national male colleagues either. A work colleagues has a brother who works in the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Each year Afghanistan gets an allocation of 10,000 places on the Haj so places are prized and people make the pilgrimage one in their lifetime. However, it’s the Ministry of Religious Affairs that allocates the places so this guy (Haj 3) has been to Mecca, yes, three times. He’s on the look out for a second wife, the first is probably worn out with the eight children she produced for him. Our driver supports 11 members of his family on his salary; he’s just a young fella with five kids of his own. Apparently his house was burnt down a while back by somebody pouring petrol through the door. They mistook his house for his landlords who it is believed shot a man in revenge for some petty incident. Life is not only interesting in Afghanistan but also cheap!
And on that not so cheery note I will sign off for now. I head to Erbil in a few weeks on another contract, which should see me through until the end of the year. So until Erbil, it’s Oscar Romeo Lima Alpha over and out from Kaboom.
Why cycle when you can bring your bicycle on a motorbike?
Sunset over the Hindu Kush mountains
The Fort in Kabul
Wedding season before Ramadan
Balloons for children
Women are not generally visible around Kabul
Roundabouts Kabul style
Kabul is surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains
Fashion Afghan style
Modern apartments in the cty
Chickens couldn’t come more fresh than this
Not unusual to find donkey and carts in the capital
Patrick Kingsley reporting for The Guardian in Borno state, Nigeria. Hunger follows displaced people around north-east Nigeria, as Boko Haram and climate change drive millions from their homes.
““The narrative of this deepening humanitarian crisis in north-east Nigeria has been largely overlooked by the media, whose focus remains on the kidnapping of roughly 300 Chibok school girls,” says Orla Fagan, a spokesperson for UN’s office for coordination of humanitarian affairs.”
Women and children queue outside a Unicef nutrition clinic in a makeshift settlement in Muna, Maiduguri, which is home to thousands of IDPs. Photograph: Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty
As Ali Kawu eases his handcart to a halt on a recent morning in north-east Nigeria, it is the first time he has dared to stop walking in more than 24 hours.
A day earlier, at 8am, Boko Haram militants raided his village. Kawu, 25, escaped with what he could – his wife, their three children, and kindling for a fire. They left behind their papers, six sacks of beans, up to 15 dead neighbours, and 10 kidnapped villagers. Then they walked all day and all night.
“Every minute I would look back to see if they were following us,” Kawu says, shortly after reaching the safety of Monguno, a town recaptured from Boko Haram last year. “Walking forward, looking back, walking forward, looking back. I thought it was the end of my life.”
But safety doesn’t mean comfort. Kawu is just the latest of approximately 140,000 displaced people sheltering in this remote town of 60,000 people. North-east Nigeria has been hit by a displacement crisis that dwarfs any migration flows seen in Europe in recent years.
Since the Boko Haram insurgency began, more people have migrated to Monguno alone than left all of north Africa for Europe in the first nine months of this year.
One upshot is a food crisis that the UN warns might see hundreds of thousands die from famine next year.
About 40% more people have been displaced throughout Borno state (1.4 million) than reached Europe by boat in 2015 (1 million). Across the region, the war against Boko Haram has forced more people from their homes – 2.6 million – than there are Syrians in Turkey, the country that hosts more refugees than any other.
The comparisons mirror a wider trend across Africa. Of the world’s 17 million displaced Africans, 93.7% remain inside the continent, and just 3.3% have reached Europe, according to UN data supplied privately to the Guardian.
“No matter how many problems Europeans have, it’s nothing like this,” summarises Modu Amsami, the informal leader of Monguno’s nine camps for internally displaced people (IDP), as he strolls past Kawu’s newly erected hut. “Please, I’m appealing to Europeans to forget their minor problems. Let them come here and face our major problems.”
For 18 months, Monguno endured its migration crisis largely alone. Amsami is an IDP but decided to run Monguno’s nine camps himself in the absence of any government officials. It was not until this June, a year and a half after the Nigerian army retook the town from Boko Haram, that aid groups and civil servants felt safe to return.
“We were shaken by what we saw,” says Mathieu Kinde, an aid worker with Alima, a medical NGO that was the first to arrive. Many people were starving, having been cut off from their farmland. There was a polio outbreak – Nigeria’s first case in two years. Just one government doctor was left in the town.
To this day, the townspeople cannot farm their fields – Boko Haram remains too close to the town’s perimeter. Aid convoys from Maiduguri, the state capital, risk ambush. Most food can arrive only by helicopter, which is how the Guardian reached the town. The number of people in a famine-like state has been slightly reduced, but every week Alima treats up to 200 new cases of malnutrition. “The situation remains alarming,” says Kinde.
About 68 miles (110km) to the south, Maiduguri seems calmer. It remains under curfew but the roads into the city are largely secure, the streets are clean and its nightlife is reportedly experiencing a tentative revival. But if you know where to look, it is a city under extreme pressure.
More than 600,000 IDPs have migrated to this city of just 1.1 million during peacetime over the past three years, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). About a quarter have been put up in half-built schools, or in housing projects intended for teachers and civil servants. The rest have been taken in by friends and relatives.
The government in Maiduguri has installed 13,000 IDPs in a housing estate originally meant for civil servants. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian
“It’s an amazing story,” says Toby Lanzer, the UN’s assistant secretary general for the Sahel and the Lake Chad region. According to Lanzer, the local community has in effect said: “We built that as a school, but you [IDPs can] have it. And we built that as a new neighbourhood, but we will put you lot in it. How’s that for generosity, Europe?”
But that generosity has come at a price, says the governor of Borno state, the province where the majority of the fighting and displacement has taken place. Unemployment in Maiduguri has exceeded 50% since the start of the crisis, says the governor, Kashim Shettima, while more beggars gather at the major road junctions because the IDPs have few means of alternative income.
“Health facilities are at breaking point,” he says. “All resources have become overstretched. We ask all people of conscience to help.”
Across the region, about 65,000 people are suffering from famine-like conditions. Inside a makeshift clinic run by Médecins Sans Frontières in a Maiduguri suburb, you can find some of the most dire cases. On bed after bed, about 100 skeletal babies and toddlers stare vacantly into space. Many have plastic nodules stuck to their skull, to allow the nurses to attach them to a drip. Many children are so thin their scalp is the only place a visible vein can be found.
“Getting food became so difficult after my husband was killed [by Boko Haram],” says one mother, whose malnourished three-year-old lies motionless on the bed beside her. “I would beg every day but I wouldn’t get more than 100 naira [25p] a day. And that’s how he got hungry.”
A mother feeds her malnourished child at a nutrition clinic run by Médicins Sans Frontières in Maiduguri. Thousands of children have died of starvation and disease in Boko Haram-ravaged north-eastern Nigeria. Photograph: Sunday Alamba/AP
The international community has largely failed to help: UN funding is still 61% ($297m) short of its target. Local residents have stepped in where they can. Babakara al-Kali, a Maiduguri businessman, has given a plot of land to about 3,000 IDPs – forgoing the 10m naira (£25,000) he previously charged construction workers and mechanics to rent it every year. “If you help someone, God will help you,” Kali says. “So I decided to help them.”
Still, the conditions inside this makeshift camp are abject. Streams of slurry trickle through the site. A family mourns a child who died yesterday of hunger. Two elderly men have become blind in recent days and the camp’s elders blame the lack of food. Some residents spend their mornings collecting spilt grain at the local market; in the afternoons, they sift through them piece by piece, sorting the edible grains from the rotten ones.
“We have lost count of the number of people killed by hunger,” says Bulama Modusalim, the camp’s informal leader.
Aside from their physical problems, many of the IDPs across the region are suffering from psychological trauma. Almost every interviewee tells a story of being woken at dawn by gunfire, of emerging from their huts to find Boko Haram fighters killing their neighbours or kidnapping their relatives.
Ali Falfami, 73, had his hand removed after being shot by Boko Haram fighters. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian
Ali Falfami, 73, has a missing hand; it was amputated after being shot by Boko Haram. Karu Modu, 28, has a missing son – he was shot by the militants – and a missing husband: they slit his throat. Modu survived because she agreed to watch their murder. “They forced me to watch them die so that I would not be slaughtered,” she says, before breaking down in tears.
Modu was then kidnapped and held for nearly two years. After escaping with a group of fellow captives, six of their children died of thirst as they trekked to the safety of Maiduguri. On arrival, they were initially ostracised. People feared the women had become indoctrinated during their time with the extremists, and were wary of talking to or even sitting with the returnees.
Karu Modu, 28, was kidnapped and held by Boko Haram for two years. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian
These are not isolated experiences. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign has focused on the group of schoolgirls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 – but away from the media spotlight, thousands of others are believed to have also been abducted in other incidents. At one point, Boko Haram controlled an area the size of Belgium and killed an estimated 20,000 people. Now the group is in retreat, but millions more still face food shortages.
“The narrative of this deepening humanitarian crisis in north-east Nigeria has been largely overlooked by the media, whose focus remains on the kidnapping of roughly 300 Chibok school girls,” says Orla Fagan, a spokesperson for UN’s office for coordination of humanitarian affairs.
“Each one of the girls who remains captivity is a minuscule representation of the millions of Nigerians who now face starvation across the north-east as a result of Boko Haram violence. They are some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of society, who also continue to struggle for their basic needs to survive each and every day.”
Many of them are being encouraged to return home where they face uncertain futures. The Nigerian army has retaken several key towns from the insurgents, and the government wants their former residents to go back to what they say are now safe areas. But the reality is more complex: the roads in and out are often still contested, as are the fields surrounding the towns. Many buildings lie in ruins and, as a result, returnees are often forced to live in IDP camps even after they have nominally reached their hometown.
Bulama Modusalim is the informal leader of a makeshift camp for IDPs displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency in north-east Nigeria. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian
Bulama Modusalim, the leader of the informal camp in Maiduguri, took a group of villagers back to Konduga in August, after the government assured them it was safe. “But when we went back we found that Boko Haram was still [in the surrounding area],” says Modusalim. “We went back and we found our houses were destroyed. We couldn’t go further than 1km from the town, so we couldn’t farm.”
Eventually, the situation became so desperate that they went back to Maiduguri, despite the poverty they knew they would face there. In a choice between war and starvation, they would rather risk the latter.
Amid all this misery, Boko Haram is the most obvious explanation for what has gone wrong. Nearly everyone is running from the jihadis who still control significant parts of the Lake Chad basin. But what led to the group’s rise in the first place? Local leaders say the group was initially able to present its fighters as victims of police brutality – and more generally positioned Boko Haram as a radical alternative to the high levels of regional poverty and unemployment.
But according to several interviewees, including the local governor, this social alienation was partly fuelled by rapid climate change. North-east Nigeria borders Lake Chad, a vast inland lake that supplies water to about 70 million people in four countries – Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger. But since the 1970s, it has shrunk by 90% – from 25,000km2 to less than 2,500km2. And those who live near its former shores say this shrinkage is one indirect cause of violence in the region, and the subsequent displacement.
Modu Amsami, the IDP who runs the nine camps in Monguno, comes from the village of Gumnari, which was once just 2km from the lake. Now it’s 18km away.
“In the 70s, you could put this tree in the lake,” Amsami says, pointing at a nearby tree, “and you wouldn’t even see it. Now if I walked in there, the water wouldn’t even reach my chest.”
As a child, Amsami’s father would tie him to a tree to stop him entering the lake and being eaten by crocodiles. Today there would be no need. The water is nowhere in sight and it’s difficult to even see a crocodile.
Modu Amsami stands next to a tree that he says would once have been submerged by Lake Chad. Now the waters would not reach his shoulders, he says. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian
All this has led to unemployment for thousands of fishermen and farmers – including several people from Amsami’s family. He reckons this worsened living conditions, created a wave of unemployed and disaffected youth – and so helped fuel the anger and resentment that created Boko Haram. “If the Lake Chad water was normal,” says Amsami, “all these problems [with Boko Haram] would be eliminated economically, because nobody would have time to do all these things.”
According to the IOM, few of the roughly 35,000 Nigerians who have in Europe this year are fleeing from the insurgency in the north-east. But the west would be wise to take the Lake Chad crisis seriously, lest the millions seeking sanctuary in the region decide to move towards Europe. Lanzer says he is “willing to bet a month’s salary that the proportion of people who will arrive in Europe from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and via Niger will grow substantially”.
Shettima speaks in even starker terms: “As long as the underlying problems that precipitate the crisis are not met, then there is a risk that more Nigerians will try to go to Europe.
“At the moment, most of them are economic migrants, but if this madness is not solved, believe me you will see a mass of humanity trying to get to Europe via the Mediterranean.”
More than 120,000 people, most of them children, are at risk of starving to death next year in areas of Nigeria affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, the United Nations is warning.
Intense fighting in parts of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon has left more than 2 million people displaced, farmers unable to harvest their crops and aid groups unable to reach isolated communities. One small state in Nigeria has more displaced people than the entire refugee influx that arrived in Europe last year.
A Guardian correspondent saw dozens of skeletal babies at a makeshift camp in the regional centre Maiduguri. Many had plastic nodules stuck to their skull, to allow the nurses to attach them to a drip. Many children are so thin their scalp is the only place where a visible vein can be found.
And yet despite these appalling scenes, Maiduguri is among the best served places in a region the size of Belgium. Much of the area is still insecure because of the war with Boko Haram, and countless thousands have not made it to population centres where some degree of care is available.
Orla Fagan, a Nigeria-based spokesperson for UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), said: “You’re looking at over 120,000 deaths next year if you can’t get aid to them – and they’re mostly children. If we can’t reach people with food and nutritional assistance there will be deaths.”
Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children, said following a recent trip that the entire region was “teetering on the brink”.
“We know in areas that we can get to that there are severe and acute malnutrition rates,” Watkins said. But beyond that, he said, “there are pockets that are probably far worse than the areas that we are dealing with. And the estimates are that there are probably 400,000 children who are in a condition of very severe malnutrition.”
He said unless emergency measures were taken, 200 children would die every day over the next year. A crucial meeting is planned for Abuja next Friday (2 December) at which aid agencies will try to agree a plan of action.
“And yet despite this background, this is a completely hidden emergency,” Watkins said. “The international community hasn’t responded on any scale at all.”
Kashim Shettima, the governor of Borno, the Nigerian state that has borne the brunt of the insurgency, said the farming that usually sustains locals had collapsed. “Most of our communities have not been able to till their soils for the past four years,” Shettima told the Guardian. “It’s just unimaginable; 80% of the people [in Borno] were denied access to their farms by Boko Haram.”
As a result, at least 55,000 people in north-east Nigeria are in a famine-like condition, Fagan says. According to UN classifications, these people are at the fifth and worst stage of food insecurity.
A further 1.8 million people are at the fourth phase, which is defined as a crisis, while 6.1 million are at the third phase, which constitutes an emergency. UNOCHA expects both figures to rise to 2 million and 8.3 million respectively within the next year.
“It’s the biggest crisis on the continent and it’s being ignored,” said Fagan. “What’s happening in Aleppo is horrendous, but it’s equally bad in north-east Nigeria – it’s just a different context.”
Widespread unemployment among displaced people has led to starvation even in places with access to aid.
In Maiduguri, which has been overwhelmed by more than 600,000 displaced people, the Guardian visited malnutrition clinics run by Médecins Sans Frontières. Most patients were the children of unemployed displaced people who had been unable to provide them with enough food.
At a nearby camp for 3,000 displaced people, its leader, Bulama Modusalim, said he had lost count of the number of residents who had died of starvation. “Hunger is killing us,” he said, holding up a dangerously thin toddler. “People are dying of hunger every day.”
The child’s mother, Hauwa Nana, 35, said one of her five children had starved to death since they fled to Maiduguri and she feared her toddler would be next. “I can only feed them once a day,” she said.
In Monguno, an isolated town accessible to journalists only by helicopter, aid groups said the situation was just as dire.
“The people here totally depend on aid,” said Mathieu Kinde, project manager for Alima, the first non-governmental organisation to reach the town after it was freed from Boko Haram control. “The host community can’t farm their land because if they go, they sometimes get killed.”
Officials and aid workers warn that if the situation continues it could foment extremism in the area and migration flows farther afield. “A hungry young man is easily susceptible to the manias of religious demagogues like [Boko Haram founder] Mohammed Yusuf and [leader of the insurgents] Abubakar Shekau,” said Shettima.
The insurgency has created huge migration flows within Nigeria and Toby Lanzer, the UN assistant secretary general and regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, warned that many of displaced people may eventually try to reach Europe.
“You’ve been totally focused on people arriving [in Europe] because of problems in Syria and Afghanistan,” he said. “But over the course of the next five years, I can predict – and I’d be willing to bet a month’s salary – that the proportion of people who will arrive in Europe from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and via Niger will grow substantially.”