Chika Oduah

A holy burden: Nigerian religious groups aid Boko Haram victims

Christian and Muslim organizations feed and shelter thousands displaced by armed group’s campaign of violence

YOLA, Nigeria — Sunday Mass is over. Throngs of people walk past the image of the Crucifixion, through the massive front doors, down the stone tiles, onto a dirt path and toward a grove of acacia trees. There they sit down wherever they see space.

One by one, they begin telling their stories. 

Godiya James, 19, describes how Boko Haram fighters attacked her village of Lassa in Borno state, the center of the violence. She says they left with hundreds of kidnapped girls. Benjamin John, 29, says Boko Haram members entered his community wearing black clothing. He and other young men tried to fight back but were outnumbered. Then 54-year-old Maryam Ayuba steps forward. In a riveting soliloquy punctuated with hand gestures, she said members of the armed group mugged her, demanding her cellphone, when she came across them in Mubi, the second-largest city in the state. Boko Haram seized the city in October and renamed it Madinatul Islam (“City of Islam”). She and many others fled the city and never returned, even after the Nigerian army recaptured it a few weeks later.

All of the Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram have a story, and in the comfort of St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church, where both Christians and Muslims take shelter, they feel the freedom to tell it. Many of them left government-operated camps in the state, citing food shortages and overcrowding. With nearly 2,700 people living on its grounds, St. Theresa shelters more internally displaced people than any other church in Yola, the capital of Adamawa state in northeastern Nigeria. Almost 1 million people are estimated to be displaced in Nigeria, according to the country's National Information Center. Tens of thousands more have fled to neighboring countries.

Since 2009, the northeastern region has faced a growing humanitarian crisis due to Boko Haram’s deadly campaign of violence. The group, which attacks Christians and Muslims, has declared a goal of establishing a state in northeastern Nigeria ruled under its interpretation of Islamic law. The group has launched suicide attacks, razed villages, abducted countless hostages and in recent months has extended its operations into neighboring Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The violence has increased significantly over the past year.

“We opened our doors to IDPs [internally displaced people] in September last year after Madagali was attacked,” said the Rev. Father Maurice Kwairanga. “They fled their town and came to Yola. They were sleeping in motor parks and in abandoned buildings. Then they began coming to our gate. They came begging to be let in. Then more people came, from Michika, Mubi, so many places.”

Maurice says the church must answer a moral obligation, but it is struggling to provide for thousands.

Worshippers enter St. Theresa Roman Catholic Church before Mass, Jan. 18, 2015 in Yola, Nigeria.

The church’s storehouse is running dangerously low. The remaining 20 bags of rice, 50 bags of maize, 50 bags of guinea corn and 15 bags of sugar will likely run out by next week if the church does not get help.

Other Nigerian churches and the Vatican have contributed, and the church receives a little assistance from the state, but it is still struggling to meet the needs of all the IDPs.

At 6 a.m., hundreds of people sleeping in the old cathedral begin to rise, folding up their mats and washing their laundry outside. Women feed their children, and the vendors start to make their way into the city to try to sell their goods.

In another part of the city, people wait in line for a ration of relief materials, like vegetable oil, rice and a mattress, provided by the Muslim Council. There is no mad dash here. The organizers have just enough for the 17,000 registered Christians and Muslims.

For Sini Solomon, 32, these will be his only possessions. He ran away from his village when Boko Haram attacked there and razed houses. “They entered more than five times in 2014,” he said. “I never left because I was expecting help from Nigerian soldiers.” 

He has just arrived in Yola, looking for his wife and children, who fled earlier.

It’s a story that Bashir Tahir says he has heard before. As the coordinator of the Muslim Council’s IDP program, he lends a listening ear to tragic tales. He says one woman confessed to him that she left her newborn baby in a bush because she would rather have the baby die there than in the hands of Boko Haram. He says he is still haunted by the story of a man who, while still suffering from the abduction of his daughters and the death of his son by Boko Haram, was killed when he was organizing his wife’s funeral.

The council, which is funded by private donations and a national umbrella of Islamic organizations, distributes food and goods weekly but does not have sleeping quarters.

Maurice said St. Theresa has conducted donation drives five times since September. The first time, more than 6,000 people showed up needing aid.

The Muslim Council and St. Theresa Catholic Church will continue to support people — regardless of their religious affiliation — seeking assistance for what now seems to be an indefinite amount of time. The Nigerian military says it has killed “many terrorists” during its ongoing offensive on Sambisa Forest, where the fighters are believed to have a major encampment. The Nigerian government aims to make more military advancements in cooperation with the multinational force of its neighboring countries, pledging to secure the country before the scheduled March 28 presidential election. In the latest video, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, vowed to further destabilize the region, saying “this election will not be held, even if we are dead.” Such threats will undoubtedly lead to more Nigerians fleeing to cities like Yola, which are feeling the pressure.  

“If this is left to the government alone, they will suffer,” Tahir said. “We need to come in to supplement. We believe it is our moral obligation.” 

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