Aishat Abba, a 35-year-old mother, spends her days in a crush of beggars soliciting alms from people in passing cars in the northeastern Nigerian city of Maiduguri. She’s says it’s the only way her family can survive.
She’s one of hundreds of women and girls who’ve turned to begging after fleeing attacks from the Islamist group Boko Haram in the countryside. Abba and her children escaped their hometown of Dalakaleri, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) east of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, after a militant raid killed scores of people, including her husband.
“The Borno state government came to my aid with some assistance, but it wasn’t enough because my husband who put bread on my table has been lost and I have to find a way of feeding myself and my four children,” Abba said in a roadside interview near a military checkpoint.
Maiduguri, like other major towns in the region, has become a refuge for civilians fleeing the widening insurgency in Africa’s biggest oil producer. Boko Haram attacks have forced more than 350,000 people to leave their homes, according to the National Emergency Management Agency. The United Nations Refugee Agency last week appealed to donors for $34 million to provide aid to more than 75,000 people who’ve escaped the violence in the past year across the border into Cameroon, Chad and Niger.
Thousands of others are living in caves and forests, Oliver Doeme, the Catholic bishop of Maiduguri, said in an e-mailed statement on Sept. 18. Within the city alone, 58,000 people are staying at five camps for the displaced, according to the NEMA.
At least 25 towns and villages in the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa are now under the control of Boko Haram fighters, many in mainly Christian areas where residents are ordered to convert to Islam or risk death, Doeme said.
“We are faced with a huge humanitarian crisis; people are sleeping on the streets in Maiduguri,” he said. “The state government is doing her bit to provide for them, but the number is overwhelming and the resources are limited.”
Women and young girls have been particularly hard hit by the crisis, according to Hajiya Hassana Ibrahim Waziri, the coordinator of the Muslim Women Association at the University of Maiduguri.
Women and girls “suffer the most traumatic and unbearable hardships due to their vulnerability at times of crisis,” she told a workshop in Maiduguri this month. “This is more distinct when they lose their husbands, guardians or children who are mostly bread winners of the family.”
The militants, who sparked global outrage when they kidnapped more than 250 girls from their school dormitory in the town of Chibok in April, have intensified attacks on predominantly Christian areas of the northeast in the past month, Doeme said.
Boko Haram, whose name means “western education is a sin,” killed more than 2,000 people in the first half of this year, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch.
Abba said her children no longer go to school out of fear they’ll become targets and only attend Koranic lessons.
“Formal schools are out of it for now when they could be attacked at any time,” she said.
Residents caught in areas under Boko Haram control report a daily regime of brutality.
Maimunat Bukar, a 50-year-old mother of 10, was sleeping when Boko Haram fighters staged a dawn raid on the town of Damboa, about 90 kilometers south of Maiduguri, on Sept. 2.
“The insurgents invaded our home and ordered me to take my praying mat and leave the house,” she said in an interview at a displaced people’s camp in Maiduguri. “Before my eyes, all I have worked for went up in flames as they set the house ablaze.”
When the insurgents took over the town of Bama early this month, Baagana Kellumi remained to look after his sick mother while his wife and children fled. Then he went into hiding after the fighters began locking up and killing men.
“I hid for two weeks and only ate in the night when Boko Haram weren’t on patrol,” Kellumi, 35, said by phone from Maiduguri on Sept. 14. He decided to flee after his mother died, joining a group of men, women and children that left in the cover of the night through bush paths.
The fighters in Bama were marrying off young girls as well as married women after declaring their husbands infidels, Falmata Gana, who fled to Maiduguri, said by phone.
“The brutality and callousness with which people are killed can only be compared with that of ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” Doeme said.