Boko Haram refugees risk lives to cross lake to Chad
Baga Solo, Chad — Kellou Abakar knew she was in trouble as the contractions started not long after an Islamic extremist group attacked her town in Nigeria. Her husband was nowhere to be found, and so she pulled her 4-year-old son onto her back and grabbed her two little girls by the hand.
The 30-year-old pregnant woman ran as fast as she could to escape the Jan. 3 attack on her hometown of Baga. It was one of the worst massacres ever carried out by Boko Haram during its five-year insurgency.
The jihadist group seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate is believed to have killed hundreds that January day, and Abakar still doesn’t know whether her husband is among the dead more than two months later. Three of her other children disappeared in the chaos that ensued as the militants opened fire indiscriminately and threw people into the burning homes that had been set ablaze.
The family made its way four hours on foot, and by the time she got to the shores of Lake Chad to board a boat to safety in neighboring Chad, she was too far along in her labor to get in. She gave birth in Nigeria. As soon as Aboubakar was born, she and the children got into a boat.
“If I had stayed there they would have killed me too,” she said softly inside a tent at a refugee camp now home to more than 6,000 Nigerians who have fled Boko Haram’s violence.
Abakar and her children arrived this week at the camp after taking refuge in several other villages. The camp on the edge of the Sahara Desert is jointly run by the UN and the Chadian government.
As she sat breastfeeding Aboubakar, her older children played on the sandy floor, their cheerful voices drowned out by the wind rattling the tarp overhead. She hopes her husband will approve of the name she chose for him so he could get identity documents as a newborn refugee. There was no naming ceremony, no father was present to buy a sheep to slaughter in sacrifice. She named the child after his grandfather — for now.
Many here hope their loved ones are not dead, but rather among those still hiding on the dozens of islands that dot Lake Chad which borders Chad, Nigeria and parts of Cameroon and Niger. The Chadian military tries to protect those fleeing here but even so, several weeks ago, Boko Haram militants aboard motorized boats attacked the peninsula of N’gouboua inside Chad, killing at least seven people.
Since then, families have been brought from there to the camp where UNICEF offers health service and school and activities for the children. The families receive food from humanitarian agencies and are assigned tents erected in neat blocks. They seek shade from the desert sun under acacia trees. Refugees take water from a well. Men riding camels through the region also come to the well.
Chadian authorities believe more than 2,000 people remain trapped on islands, awaiting transport to a refugee camp in one of the world’s poorest countries.
“Many are traumatized and come with only the clothes on their backs,” said Dimouya Souapebe, the chief civil servant in the area. “We are obliged to welcome them, and share with them what we have to eat.”
Some 100,000 Nigerians have fled to in neighboring Niger, with roughly another 60,000 in Cameroon.
Mahamat Abakar, 60, last saw his wife and eight children two months ago as they divided themselves between two small wooden boats. Upon arriving at this refugee camp, he was told that one of his sons was here too. When he saw him, he sobbed.
“I keep the faith that God has saved the rest of them and I will find them too,” he says.
The 10-year-old said the boat he was on was sinking and the man paddling it ordered him and another child. They clung onto tree branches until people in another boat spotted them and brought them to safety.
As a Muslim, the father has only anger for people who claim they are carrying out attacks in the name of Islam.
“There is no passage in the Quran that says you can kill someone and steal their belongings and then kidnap their children,” he said, wiping his eyes with a sandy scrap of fabric.