Last week, Maryam acquired a new warm blanket. Actually, her whole camp received new blankets, so the harmattan winds have been a lot more tolerable. Now the search for firewood by virtually everyone in the camp is not as desperate, and this is a relief because venturing further away from the camp where firewood is more easily available has become harzadous. A few more of the elderly in the camp have also been moved into new tents, so Maryam and a few of the females have taken up their former locations near the center of the camp. The camp on the whole is more comfortable, but no one is sure if it will get better or worse.
Maryam is about 14 years old. Too old to be a child and too young to be a woman, she has gone through experiences that have made it impossible to cry anymore. Virtually everyone who has heard her story from when her life as a member of a family in a small village in Adamawa State was ended, has been amazed by the calmness with which she reeled out the chronicle of the tragedy which her life has become.
This is her third camp, where she is some sort of a leader although some of the younger females are older than she is. When Boko Haram first attacked her village, they killed her father and elder brother and abducted her brother’s new wife and her elder sister who was nursing a baby. The baby was left behind. Her mother ran away with some women. She has not seen any of them since. The insurgents stayed in the village for two months, and then relocated with Maryam and about fifty young females and men to another of their strongholds. This was where Maryam was given out by the Amir as ‘bride’ to an insurgent. Three days after her ‘marriage’, her husband was killed in an encounter with Nigerian soldiers who subsequently occupied the village. The soldiers rounded up scores of young men and women suspected to have had links with Boko Haram. Maryam’s ‘marriage’ to a dead insurgent counted heavily against her. She was detained, tortured and abused by soldiers for months as a suspected informant and member of Boko Haram. In her fourth week of detention, Boko Haram captured the village, and its population once again came under a lowly but brutal Amir. He immediately put scores of young men to the sword, with the whole village watching, and then shared out young women, including Maryam, to fighters. Maryam’s second ‘husband’ helped her escape from the village when news filtered in that Nigerian soldiers were approaching. She was pregnant.
For six days, Maryam walked through the bush, feeding from the little supply her ‘husband’ gave her. Three days after her escape, she lost the pregnancy. She was rescued by some soldiers who took her to a village clearing that will be her first camp or, more accurately, gathering. It was an open space near a burnt-out village, with no water, food or shelter. Almost the entire population was made up of old men, women and children. Even husbands vouched for by wives and children were isolated or detained by soldiers. In the night, soldiers disappeared from the camp. No one was allowed to light fires in the night because it will attract Boko Haram. The camp became Maryam’s prison. To leave was too dangerous, and staying exposed her to the elements, Boko Haram fighters or soldiers who worked them to the bones cooking or clearing. Young girls spoke in hushed tones about rape and other abuses in the night.
The rains made it impossible to continue to live in the gathering. Soldiers made contact with relief officials, and the entire gathering was moved in batches to an enclosure nearer a town. This was the first administered camp, with protection provided by a makeshift fence, vigilante and a military encampment nearby. Feeding was poor, with one meal a day for most people, and when it rained for long periods, there was no cooked food. For the first time since she left her own village, she was seen by a doctor who was only interested in examining her for wounds. He was a man. She kept her stories to herself.
Maryam matured in this camp. She assumed additional responsibilities looking after younger children, cooking and sharing food, and working with the elderly men to keep an eye on young men with predatory sexual tendencies. She stopped asking new arrivals of her mother and relations. She became stronger with the thought that she was entirely on her own.
In the last four months, traffic of help has improved in the camp. Feeding is better, but still poor. Medical facilities are bare, and almost on a daily basis, women deliver babies without medical help. The camp is becoming more crowded, in spite of the fact that people move out to stay in homes of relations or relocate to rebuild lives in liberated areas. There is a lot of suspicion that new arrivals are Boko Haram spies or defectors. There are still cases of sexual violence, and many females have learnt how to get more or better rations for themselves and their children from officials and guards.
Maryam’s new blanket came in a consignment donated by some foreigners. The camp also received tents, medical facilities and quantities of food. Before the donors arrived, the camp was kept busy clearing itself, digging new latrines and water storage facilities. There have been arguments and fights among the men and younger women over exposing cheating Nigerian officials, in the event that opportunities presented themselves. Fear of being ejected or labelled Boko Haram informants has kept most inmates quiet.
There is much talk of people moving out to their liberated villages to start a rebuilding process in the midsts of fear and uncertainties. Maryam, however, is not part of these discussions. She has nowhere to go. She is suspended in time and space, a suspect in some circles, and a victim in many others.
Maryam is real. She is the nation’s open wound which festers from erratic attention and serial abuse. It feeds off the on-going battle between the Nigerian state and an insurgency that has many faces. It does not heal with the success of the military against Boko Haram, because it has taken on a life of its own. It is a gaping hole that attracts attention from caring governments with limited resources, and a global community with heavy hearts, deep pockets and enlarged concerns over corruption and abuse in the management of Internally Displaced Persons. Two million people is a large number to cater for. Yet, they have to be catered for, if the war against Boko Haram is to be won. Unless towns and villages are rebuilt, basic infrastructure rehabilitated, schools reopened, policing restored, families reunited and protected, farms ploughed, children play freely in the open and Maryam’s hope for a better life is restored, Boko Haram will claim victory against the Nigerian state. It is a victory it does not deserve.