‘They were many, the Boko Haram terrorists,’ Hadjara (45) remembers. ‘They were like mosquitos.’ She talks about April 25, 2015, the day Boko Haram burned down her village. Hadjara is able to flee with two of her children and the two girls who live next door. They have not been able to return home. Her husband and the girl’s parents are still missing.
Until 2015, Hadjara lives with her husband and two of her children, Fati (now 14) and Ibrahim (now 3) on Lake Chad’s Karamga island. Her older children live with their own families in other villages. Next to Hadjara lives a family with two little girls: Aicha (now 10) and Saida (now 6).
But on the morning of April 25 2015, terrorists of the extremist group Boko Haram reach the island by motorized canoes. They raid the village, shoot at people and burn down the entire village. Hadjara manages to flee with Fati and Ibrahim and, in the midst of chaos, Aicha en Saida follow them.
Burned out corpses
Not far from Lake Chad, military operations are taking place but that doesn’t scare Boko Haram. They keep attacking islands for food and medication. Karamga isn’t the only island on Lake Chad terrorized by the terror group. Located between Niger, Nigeria and Chad, the lake is a strategic area. Moreover, because of it’s swampiness the lake is an attractive hiding spot for the attackers.
When Hadjara fled her village, she saw few of the terrorists. What she did see were burned-out corpses. ‘I saw them laying there, at the side of the road,’ she recalls.
Even though she’s with young children, Hadjara has no choice but to walk the 25 miles to N’Guini. ‘We know some relatives who live there,’ she explains. ‘And, our village had decided that we would meet up in N’Guini when Boko Haram attacked. We knew it was going to happen, we just didn’t know when.’
It took them two days and two nights of walking before they arrived in N’Guini. But the parents of Aicha and Saida and Hadjara’s husband were nowhere to be found.
A week later all three of them were still missing. Hadjara decides that there’s no point in staying in N’Guini. The new family goes to Diffa, the South-Eastern regio in Niger. A camionette brings all of them.
‘I consider them as my own daughters’
A year and a half later, they still live in a refugee camp in Diffa. ‘Aicha and Saida used to ask for their parents all the time,’ Hadjara tells. ‘That has stopped. I consider them as my own daughters.’ Next to Hadjara, Saida smiles softly.
Right now, Hadjara is responsible for five people: her own two children, her mother, and Saida and Aicha. Twice a month a social worker from the Direction Régional de la Protection de l’Enfant (DRPE) visits the family. Unicef and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) provide food and other items. Aicha and Saida regularly participate in activities of SOS Children’s Villages. Those are both recreational and psycho-social.
‘That really helps,’ says Hadjara grateful. But life in a refugee camp remains hard. ‘Still, I prefer this life over living with the constant threat of Boko Haram. They murder, raid the villages, and then burn them down,’ she sighs. ‘Why do they do that? I don’t get the terrorists.’
In November 2016 I won the Belgian Unicef Young Journalist Award managed by Unicef Belgium and news organisation Stampmedia. A month later I visited Niger together with Philip Henon from Unicef Belgium, photographer Frank Dejongh, journalist Jesse Van Regenmoortel and people from Unicef Niger, including Viviane Van Steirtheghem (head of Unicef Niger) and Charlotte Arnaud (communication specialist).
Foto heading this article ©Frank Dejongh.