Nigeria's Boko Haram refugees: fleeing in their thousands

Ben Simon
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Women queue to receive humanitarian aid goods distributed by the Red Cross on December 3, 2014 in Yola after fleeing Boko Haram attacks in their native regions

Women queue to receive humanitarian aid goods distributed by the Red Cross on December 3, 2014 in Yola after fleeing Boko Haram attacks in their native regions (AFP Photo/Florian Plaucher)

Yola (Nigeria) (AFP) - Dauda Bello came face-to-face with Boko Haram militants but managed to escape their hail of bullets, fleeing to safety after a marathon drive on a brutal mountain road.

"It was terrible... (Boko Haram) was firing in every direction," he told AFP in Yola, the capital of northeast Nigeria's Adamawa state, where he fled from the town of Mubi in late October.

Bello is just one of more than 1.5 million Nigerians forced from their homes by the raging Islamist insurgency, which has left 13,000 dead since 2009 and raised fears of a humanitarian crisis.

About 400,000 of the internally displaced (IDPs) are in or near Yola, according to Nigeria's National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA), heaping pressure on the city's resources.

Many are staying in small villages embedded in the ring of hills that surrounds the city, unable or too afraid to make the trip down.

Some 15,000 others are in a series of camps, sleeping on the concrete floors of converted primary schools or on creaky metal bunks in vacated youth centres.

But most are staying with host families. With no end in sight to the violence, community groups are struggling to keep track of new arrivals and distribute much-needed food aid.

"The number moving into Yola became very enormous," said Sa'ad Bello of NEMA, explaining that the federal government, Red Cross and others has had to step in as Yola's population exploded.


- Frantic escape -


Boko Haram has been waging a five-year uprising to create a hardline Islamic state and captured much of northern Adamawa in an October advance.

The military says many towns have now been retaken, including the commercial hub of Mubi, 197 kilometres (123 miles) by road northeast of the state capital.

But the security situation remains precarious and no IDPs said they were ready to return home.

NEMA's Bello said the camps were well-stocked but that host families were struggling to cope with the massive influx of people.

More supplies needed to be distributed across the community, especially if security is not restored, he added.

Dauda Bello's escape began on the morning of October 29, when he approached the campus of the Adamawa State University in Mubi, where he works as an English professor.

Soldiers were acting nervously and students were streaming down the road that leads out of town, carrying their belongings.

"We were certain that Boko Haram were coming," said the slightly built 58-year-old, who is also a former high-ranking civil servant.

Bello jumped into his car with two of his children and three others but had to go to a mechanic for some last-minute maintenance.

He hailed a motorised rickshaw to get money from his bank but ran straight into Boko Haram gunmen, who were firing recklessly at buildings and into the air.

He returned to his car and drove but with the main road to Yola blocked he was forced to take the mountain route, veering into neighbouring Cameroon. He arrived the next day.


- Struggle for aid -


A row of hands grasped the metal bars outside the Muslim Council headquarters in Yola, as a desperate crowd waited under the harsh, late afternoon sun for the gates to open.

Many in the several hundred-strong crowd waiting for a food handout told similar stories to Bello: a scramble to evade a Boko Haram raid then a hard trek, mostly on foot, to Yola.

Primary school teacher Ali Kulike, 49, fled the town of Gwoza in Borno state in early August just before Boko Haram proclaimed it part of their caliphate.

He said he walked through the bushlands for several hundred kilometres before finding a bus that took him and three of his children to Adamawa's capital.

Standing in the crush of people waiting for a portion of rice, maize flour and vegetable oil was a painful turn of fortune, he admitted.

But he said he needed to bring something back to the small room he was sharing with his children and was prepared to wait until well after dark.

"I don't want to stay in camp," he told AFP, pressed up against the gate. "If we can get food today, it will be okay."

There have been many similar distributions across Yola, at churches and other community centres.

Funds have been provided by the government, aid groups such as the Red Cross as well as the American University of Nigeria, which is based in the city.

But officials at the Muslim Council feared this handout could turn rowdy, as the crowd grew increasingly restless, eyeing the relatively few supplies.

"We may have to postpone," said Dauda Bello, who was volunteering at the council, as he saw the unexpectedly large crowd gathering.

"I'm not sure we have enough for everyone."