Chika Oduah

The lost children of Nigeria: Boko Haram orphans thousands

Thousands of youths orphaned or separated from their parents by Boko Haram’s campaign of violence face ongoing trauma

YOLA, Nigeria — Rose Wakulu is exhausted. Yet the 25-year-old sits upright on a wooden chair in an abandoned school classroom, breastfeeding her 28-day-old nephew Ibrahim. Boko Haram fighters killed his mother and twin on the day he was born.

At Wakulu’s feet sits 5-year-old Moses Luka, the son of another of Wakulu’s sisters. Moses is putting dirty plastic bottle tops in his mouth. Two of them get stuck, and he tries to cough them out. Wakulu bends down over Ibrahim’s head and sticks a finger in Moses’ mouth to pry out the plastic tops. When she forces them out, they fly into the air, landing on the other side of a pile of rusty chairs. He runs after his makeshift toys.

Wakulu’s daughter, 2-year-old Ladi, trails after Moses. They arrived the day before, and are still getting used to living in the camp.

With Ibrahim on her back, Wakulu dresses her nephew Moses Luka, 5, as his cousin Ladi looks on, the day after they arrived at a camp for internally displaced Nigerians, Jan. 17, 2015.
Chika Oduah

In December, Boko Haram fighters attacked Wakulu’s village, Lassa, in neighboring Borno state.

Moses’ mother was killed outside his family’s home while he was inside with his father. When Moses’ father went out to try to bury his wife’s body, the fighters returned and killed him too. Moses was still inside the house.

Wakulu and Ladi were hiding in the bush with a group of people who had fled the killing spree. Leaving Ladi behind, she sneaked out to go to the home of another sister, who had stayed behind because she was heavily pregnant. Wakulu entered through the gates and found her sister lying in the dirt, blood still spilling from her body.

Wakulu heard the cry of babies. She ran into the house and saw newborn twins lying on their backs on the floor. One was murdered, covered in blood; the other, now named Ibrahim, was crying. She quickly buried the dead infant and her sister. Then she picked up the crying baby. She ran through the village to the home of her second sister, where she saw her and her husband’s bodies. She grabbed Moses by his hand and returned to Ladi.

With Ibrahim strapped on her back, Wakulu, Moses and Ladi crawled through the bush with dozens of other terrified villagers. They walked from village to village, nearly 150 miles, until she could no longer feed the baby and Moses was too tired to walk. After 12 days, the four reached the state capital, Yola.

But the horror of what they escaped still haunts Wakulu.

“When I saw Boko Haram, I vomited,” she said, speaking in the Hausa language. “They were wearing Nigerian army uniforms, but they had turbans on their heads, so that was how I knew they were not soldiers.”

Wakulu, Ladi, Ibrahim and Moses are now in a state government-run camp called Girei One, where more than a thousand internally displaced people live. Because the camp is a transition unit where the displaced are eventually relocated to more permanent camps, no one has an accurate idea of how many orphans have passed through Girei One. But it’s clear that many children are at the camp without their parents.

Jummai Joshua, an 8-year-old orphan, prays with her grandmother in the tent they share in a refugee camp in Yola.
Chika Oduah

Jummai Joshua, a petite and curious 8-year-old, is one of them. She’s at the camp with her grandmother. Jummai’s mother died in childbirth years ago. Her father was killed by Boko Haram fighters weeks earlier when they invaded their town.

Jummai and her grandmother hid in the fields for days. In the mornings, Jummai played with seeds falling from the trees and blades of dried grasses. One morning, her grandmother sneaked back to the village for food and saw Jummai’s father’s body on a path to his farmland.

“My father — I just cried,” Jummai says. She looks down. Her grandmother looks away.

For more than five years Boko Haram, which aims to create a state in northeastern Nigeria under its version of Sharia, has committed atrocities across the region. According to Amnesty International, at least 2,000 people were feared dead after a massive January attack in the far northeastern town of Baga near Lake Chad in Borno. The Nigerian military put the death toll at 150. The group has extended its reach, executing its first attack in the neighboring country of Chad last week. 

Due to lack of access to areas controlled by the fighters and conflicting reports from witnesses and the Nigerian government, no one knows just how many people are killed in Boko Haram attacks. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that more than 1.5 million people have been displaced. It’s unknown how many of these refugees are children whose parents are dead or missing.

“It’s a downfall for Nigeria,” said community health worker Ahmed Ulenda. “These kids are losing their parents, and the president of Nigeria has not come here to console these orphans.”

Ulenda has treated a number of orphans who had fallen sick during a recent measles outbreak in Girei One Camp. He monitors their physical health. But the mental health of these children has received almost no attention. He sighs and says, “We do psychosocial counseling. We give them a brief talk. We tell them to forget about everything. We tell them God will take care of them.”

Yola-based psychologist Hasan Mubi is worried about the minimal care given to the mental state of children who have been directly affected by Boko Haram.

He said the situation is “beyond the state’s capacity to handle,” and a more communal and comprehensive approach must be administered in offering mental health care for the children. He and a group of lecturers from the Federal College of Education in Yola have collaborated to offer such services. They are conducting a survey to create a database of unaccompanied minors in a camp in the Damare area of Yola. More than 6,000 people displaced by Boko Haram have set up temporary lives here, making it the largest camp in the state. 

Mubi estimates that Boko Haram's campaign of violence has left nearly half a million children without their parents. In Damare camp in Adamawa he says there are more than 500 such unaccompanied minors and that it’s hard to tell which ones are orphaned and which ones don’t know if there parents are alive after being separated from them while fleeing Boko Haram. 

In either case, he said these children often display signs of trauma, such as aggressive behavior and inability to sleep.

“They are experiencing stress from being in a new environment. This is a temporary life. What happens after this?”

Hauwa Marshall, 11, and her sister Fatimatu, 13, sleep in a small square room with dozens of others. Eleven floral-print mattresses are stacked on top of a metal-framed bunk bed. Hauwa and Fatimatu are orphans. They were fetching water when Boko Haram members stormed through in a convoy of motorbikes. The fighters killed their father. Their mother was already dead.

Hausa is lively and smiles freely. Fatimatu is meek and introverted. Her sister is her only friend in the camp. She says she’s too shy to make new friends. Fatimatu often feels like wandering off and being alone, but it’s hard to do that in an overcrowded camp. She says no one ever asks her how she feels.

Mubi said that if children are not given proper mental attention, they could become a problem in society. He compared the situation to the level of psychological trauma that children who lived during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda experienced, saying that children living through Boko Haram’s insurgency have been forced to see similar violent murders.

“It’s likely that the next 20 to 30 years, we will see violent behavior arising from these youth and children,” he says. “Whatever steps you take now can correct the future now. Our intervention may not have immediate effects.”

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