By Ibrahim Abdul’Aziz in Yola, Nigeria
Millions of Nigerians have fled Boko Haram, but the violence follows them.
Scores of people have been killed in the last few weeks in a string of suicide bombings in the main northeastern cities where they seek refuge. Border areas where refugees flee in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger are increasingly under attack. So pervasive is the insurgency, it is even starting to strike the displacement camps where the most desperate seek help.
Authorities are in the process of “evacuating” more than 4,000 Nigerians from the Malkohi camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) near Yola where a bomb exploded on the morning of 11 September killing seven people and injuring dozens more. They are being relocated to Maiduguri, a city routinely targeted by suicide bombers, many of them young women and girls.
Despite attempts to improve security, fear is still driving many IDPs to ask to leave the very places they originally sought refuge. Evacuations of the nearby camps of Fufore and Damare began soon after Malkohi, many of them refugees from the northeastern border region who initially fled to Cameroon, only to be repatriated and sent back to the Yola area.
“Let me tell you, we are living in an atmosphere of despair and agony,” Njidda Goni, one of those still to leave Malkohi, tells IRIN. “We are afraid that anything could happen here.”
Halima Babagana, a widowed mother of two, agrees: “I cannot continue to stay in this camp because no one can tell you when these people, these Boko Haram, will strike. There is fear that there could again be their informants or members in this camp. I am happy we are now being evacuated by our state government, because otherwise many of us would have to find somewhere [else] to live, even leave the camps.”
TO PREVENT ATTACKS, 50 security personnel, including soldiers, police and civil defence members, have been deployed in each camp in the region. Additionally, a number of “vigilante" groups have been created by the IDPs to keep the peace and report any suspicious activity or movement.
But since the September attack in Malkohi, many people are too scared and want to leave.
“I will not remain in this camp because the blast did occur and the last incident happened just a few hours after some new IDPs were brought here,” says Modu Ba’ana, a camp resident from Gwoza, southeast of Maiduguri. “We are afraid of what may befall us here in the camp.”
Most residents believe Boko Haram was able to infiltrate the camp by disguising themselves as IDPs.
“We in the camp know one another. We know where we came from,” another Malkohi resident, Bello Kabir, tells IRIN. “And for the military to just bring unknown faces to join us, especially from Sambisa Forest [a suspected Boko Haram hideout], has always been very disturbing for us. Now look what has happened! Unknown IDPs were brought in and there’s a bomb blast. Who do you think is responsible?”
Camp director Abdul Azeez Afunku confirms that nearly 200 new IDPs had been registered on the eve of the blast and were being lodged in the tent where the bomb exploded, but insists that all people, including visitors, are searched and screened before entering the camp.
David Moses, who works with local advocacy group Youth Against Terrorism, tells IRIN: “Obviously, one person was not screened or was not thoroughly screened. Either way, there was a fatal security breach.”
Camp officials and local police say they are still investigating the blast.
EARLIER THIS YEAR, the military discovered telephone conversations between a group of female IDPs in the Malkohi camp and some men from Sambisa Forest, who turned out to be members of Boko Haram. The camp was temporarily evacuated as security forces searched the premises, unsuccessfully, for bombs.
People were scared, but also reassured by the level of precaution. Now, camp residents, along with security analysts, are asking how such a large device could have been smuggled into the camp without being detected.
The attack has raised questions about whether the Nigerian military is in full control of the dozens of displacement camps that litter the northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa, and Yobe, and if it can guarantee the safety of the people who live in them.
“Let them [camp officials] come and take them [those newly arrived IDPs] away, or else we will leave here,” Ba’ana says.
But it is an empty threat. He and the others have nowhere else to go. The camp is the only place in the area where they are assured shelter, food and other basic necessities, including some level of security.
While aid agencies do try to help IDPs living in host communities, they are often left to fend for themselves once they leave the camps.
SINCE THE EXPLOSION, Nigeria’s National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) says it has increased the presence of its security officers in IDP camps across the northeast.
“As you can see now, more security personnel have been deployed here to ensure the safety of the IDPs,” NEMA camp coordinator Sa’ad Bello tells IRIN, explaining that there are now routine searches, and that no movements into or out of the camp are allowed except with pre-approved official permission.
“We don’t want to be taken by surprise again, so NEMA is working with security agencies to… ensure the security of the inhabitants.”
Bawa Abdullahi Wase, a prominent security analyst in Nigeria, urged vigilance as he said Boko Haram is bent on spreading fear and panic among the population by detonating bombs “within soft spots where helpless citizens reside.”
“There’s now an urgent need for all to be paying utmost attention to security issues at all levels: home, work, markets, places of worship, schools, etc. To defeat terrorism, all hands must be put on deck.”
Angele Dikongue-Atangana, a representative from the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) who visited IDP camps in Yola last month, says that while the bombing in Malkohi was an attempt to break the spirit of the people who came to seek refuge, no one should give up.
“We will continue to work provided that our personnel are secure enough to do their jobs as required, considering the risk associated with the IDP camps these days,” she tells IRIN. “We refuse to be broken. We will win the war against terrorism. We shall overcome.”