Story by Ashley Hamer
BAGA SOLA, 5 December 2016
Ali Mboudou was at home with his children one night in late 2015 when Boko Haram militants entered his village. They came in trucks and on foot from many directions, heavily armed.
“We were surrounded. Everyone was a hostage,” he tells IRIN via a translator.
“After two days, some of our men came together and we decided to escape. In the flight, eight people were caught, and the Boko Haram cut their throats. I saw some of the bodies.”
Mboudou, 37, gathered his family and fled into the bush in the ensuing chaos.
As he relates the story, he sits back on his haunches in the hot sand, his crisp green jalabiya gathered between his knees. He runs a big hand over his closely shaven head.
The village Mboudou fled from was Blarigui, located in the remote swamplands of the Lake Chad Basin, close to Chad’s border with northeastern Nigeria.
It took him a whole day to cross the various waterways, before he reached solid ground and relative safety outside the regional capital, Bol.
Now, alongside Mboudou, a crowd of up to 2,000 displaced people wait patiently for a small cash distribution from the World Food Programme beneath the scorching sun.
They are mostly Buduma, an ethnic group living across the myriad islands of Lake Chad, where the borders of Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Niger meet.
For the last seven years, the jihadi extremist group Boko Haram has eviscerated this region, uprooting 2.6 million people across four countries. An estimated 20,000 people have been killed in the group’s brutal attempt to establish an Islamic caliphate in West Africa.
Lying 150 kilometres north of Chad’s capital, N’djamena, Lake Chad is one of Africa’s great and ancient lakes, sustaining rural communities on the edge of the Sahara for millennia.
Since the early 1960s, however, the lake is believed to have shrunk to a 20th of its original size, a decrease largely attributed to human water use and climate change.
As a result of the Boko Haram insurgency, 131,000 people are internally displaced from around the lake to makeshift camps scattered around the Chadian shoreline, competing for scarce resources with an already vulnerable host community.
In November 2015, Chad’s government declared a state of emergency in the lake region, introducing restrictive anti-terror laws, as the disaster fuelled by the so-called Islamic State-linked jihadists spilled over from Nigeria.
Insurgents raided villages on the lake and mounted devastating multi-casualty suicide attacks, reaching as far as N’djamena.
Chad joined the launch of a regional task force supported by the United States and comprising some 8,700 soldiers from Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Benin to take on the insurgency and reclaim lost territory.
The outpost of Baga Sola became Chad’s military stronghold in its fight to restore security around the lake.
Roads here are but tracks in sand and scrub. The region has only become accessible to humanitarian organisations in the last year. Up to one million people around the lake are still believed to be cut off entirely from aid, according to the UN
You cannot travel north of Baga Sola to the Niger border without an armed military escort.
Decrepit Toyota pickups tear through the desert laden with soldiers, sacks of grain, and women clutching children. Camel and donkey caravans trudge steadily through empty dunes that in living memory were once covered with water.
Eight kilometres north of Baga Sola sprawls the tent and tarpaulin settlement of Dar es Salaam. The name means “place of peace” in Arabic.
It is temporary home to more than 6,500 refugees who escaped here over the last two years from attacks and military offensives in neighbouring Nigeria and Niger.
Fatou Hassan (not her real name), 26, lost most of her family in a raid by the jihadists on her village of Karanga, in Niger, in mid-2015.
She and a group of escapees piled into a wooden canoe, paddled all night, and then walked for days through the bush before reaching the Chadian border. It took a week for Fatou to make her way down the edge of the lake to Dar es Salaam.
Without relatives to help her, she decided to marry. But her husband, who had other wives, divorced her when she fell pregnant.
Fatou attempted suicide and begged to abort the baby, according to Serferbé Charlot, a psychologist with the medical charity, Médecins Sans Frontières.
She began a counselling programme with MSF in the camp and brings her ecstatic baby girl to sessions with Charlot.
“She is a baby of Chad. I will stay here to raise her until the situation in Niger is calm because I cannot live through what I saw again,” Fatou says.
Baga Sola, as the operational centre for Chad’s offensive against Boko Haram, is also hosting a growing number of people who have allegedly surrendered from the jihadist-controlled areas since July.
Out of this group of more than 1,000 individuals, 70 percent are women and children, among them unaccompanied minors, according to UNICEF. Staff from the UN children’s agency have been granted limited access by the Chadian military to assess the needs.
“Ninety-nine percent of these people are Chadians who have allegedly surrendered to the Chadian branch of the Multinational Joint Task Force at the border between Chad and Nigeria,” explains Philippe Barragne-Bigot, UNICEF’s representative in Chad.
“Focus group discussions and individual interviews revealed that most of the people who surrendered were directly or indirectly associated with Boko Haram.”
Until the Chadian authorities define the status of these new arrivals, they remain under strict surveillance, with limited freedom of movement and without sustained humanitarian assistance.
In less than a decade, Chad has emerged as a crucial ally of France and the US in the so-called “war on terror” in central and West Africa, notes analyst Marielle Debos, who has just published a book on Chad’s regional role.
“[Chad’s military] has been praised for its effectiveness. But the Chadian forces also have a bad record: they are known in Chad and beyond the borders of Chad for a reputation for brutality and human rights violations,” says (Marielle) Debos.
In 2014, at the height of the war in neighbouring Central African Republic, Chad was forced to withdraw its troops from the UN mission over accusations of extrajudicial killings and support for the Séléka rebels.
Since 2015, Chad’s forces have played a lead role in the regional battle against Boko Haram, wrestling back swathes of territory from the militants, rescuing hostages, and bringing a degree of calm to communities on the eastern shores of the lake. But the jihadists, despite internal fracturing, are far from defeated.
And Chad’s forces have also contributed to the displacement crisis by establishing a militarised “red zone” across much of the borderlands, and by relocating communities out of this area, according to Mohamed Zene, a government-appointed camp manager for Dar es Salaam.
Besides relative security, the government is not providing much more to support and resettle those displaced. The burden, instead, falls to international NGOs and the UN.
Access to the heart of the “red zone” – much of it islands on the lake where civilians are believed to need assistance – is controlled.
“Government restrictions have made it very difficult for human rights organisations and NGOs to access many parts of the Lake Chad region,” explains Stephen Cockburn, deputy regional director for human rights group Amnesty International.
“Detailed information on Boko Haram attacks, potential abuses by armed forces and the humanitarian impact of the crisis is more difficult to come by than in neighbouring countries,” says Cockburn.
“Local organisations who have collected information can also be scared to speak out, with threats of repercussions leading to self-censorship.”
Chad is one of the poorest countries on earth. It ranked second to last out of 118 nations on the Global Hunger Index for 2016 and 185 out of 187 for the UNDP Human Development Index in 2015.
Yet the country hosts one of the world’s largest refugee populations, with 360,000 people sheltering from decades of conflict in neighbouring Sudan, and some 100,000 refugees and returnees from CAR.
Governed by strongman Idriss Déby since 1990, Chad has an economy that revolved around oil production until the price crash in 2015 plunged it into profound recession.
Public service workers, including teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, and some police have been on strike over unpaid salaries for almost three months.
State schools across the country have been closed since September, and public hospitals in the capital have all but ceased to function.
“Our situation in Chad is in crisis. Everything is totally blocked,” says Younous Mahadjir, vice president for the association of trade unions in N’Djamena.
“The government decided unilaterally to impose austerity measures without consultation, and public workers have not been paid for months. It is a violation of workers’ rights.”
He says government critics are monitored and face threats and arrest, while peaceful public demonstrations are violently shut down by Déby’s security forces.
More than nine million people across the Lake Chad region urgently need humanitarian assistance. The UN has appealed for $739 million to care for six million people in Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. The Chadian component of the appeal, $98 million, is just 43 percent funded.
“The Lake Chad Basin crisis is one of the most acute emergencies in the world,” the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, Toby Lanzer, has warned. “The situation of many affected communities has deteriorated beyond alarming levels.”
Up on the remote northern tip of Lake Chad, a mere 40 kilometres from the Niger border, the needs remain huge.
Kaboulou Al Haji, chief of Moundi village, oversees another monthly cash distribution to families displaced by the violence.
The handouts, from the World Food Programme, consist of 6,000 CFA (around $10) per family member per month.
“The refugee people have been arriving here for a year. They outnumber our own community,” Al Haji tells IRIN. “We are fishermen, and there is not enough fish to provide for these new people. Our markets are disrupted and no schools are open.”
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