In Nigeria, a newly secured town offers refuge from conflict

As conflict in north-east Nigeria eases, humanitarian agencies can now access areas previously too dangerous to reach

By Katerina Vittozzi
Residents of a so-called widows' house in Banki, Borno State, north-east Nigeria, sit with their children.
UNICEF Nigeria/2016/Naftalin
22 December 2016

UPDATE (January 2017): The malnutrition situation in northeast Nigeria remains critical. The number of cases of children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition is extremely high, with the crisis in Borno state most acute. In 2016, working with partners, UNICEF treated 160,000 children suffering from Severe Acute Malnutrition in Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. Although UNICEF has made significant progress in reaching children and their families with healthcare, treatment for malnutrition, safe water, sanitation and hygiene services, education and child protection, a persistent lack of funding continues to hamper the response effort. Learn more: UNICEF's Humanitarian Action for Children 2017 >

Malnourishment among children is widespread, and displaced families still struggle with the memories of living in conflict. 

BANKI, Nigeria, 22 December 2016 – Less than 3 km from the Cameroon border is the Nigerian town of Banki in Borno State.

The town's main street, once a thriving commercial area with cross-border trade, is now deserted and lined with buildings that have  been destroyed during the conflict.
Boko Haram captured Banki in September 2014. The small town's position on the border made it a strategic location as they attempted to secure territory beyond north-east Nigeria.

The Nigerian military, assisted by the Cameroonian army, reassumed control of the town a year later in September 2015. A tentative security is holding.

Former residents and internally displaced persons from surrounding villages have now sought refuge in Banki.

The Nigerian military has recently regained control of the town of Banki after it was seized and destroyed by Boko Haram in 2014. See how UNICEF and partners are working to support vulnerable families living in Banki and other areas affected by the crisis.
Widows’ houses

With the constant arrival of people, it's difficult to accurately determine how many people live here. According to the local camp management, there's at least 20,000 displaced people now living in Banki – and the true figure could be more than twice as high.

Displaced families aren't living in tents in Banki, rather they have sought shelter in the town's semi-destroyed buildings. Most don't have roofs and the walls still bear the scars of battle.

In some houses, groups of widowed women are pooling resources. The so-called 'widows' houses' are home to women who were separated from their husbands during the conflict, or whose husbands have been kidnapped or killed by Boko Haram. Many feel safer living together, along with their children.

As they wait to see if their husbands will return, the women make do as best they can. Some try to earn a small income through dressmaking, others get on with daily chores like pounding maize for meals or chopping firewood for use in cooking.

In one widows' house we meet 18-year-old Yagana*. She used to live in a small village outside Banki with her husband and new baby Falti. The family decided to flee over the border to Cameroon because of the ongoing fighting. But while they were trying to get there, they were ambushed by Boko Haram.

"As we were fleeing, Boko Haram stopped us," she says. "They beat my husband and took him away." Yagana later found out through friends that Boko Haram had shot and killed her husband. When Banki was liberated, Yagana decided to come back to Nigeria, but she is still haunted by memories.

"I keep dreaming about my husband," she explains. "Life is difficult without him, I can't get him out of my mind." For now, the future for Yagana and her baby is uncertain, but at least they have found some security here in Banki. "I used to feel scared all the time. But at least now, I feel safe," she says.

A woman sorts rice.
UNICEF Nigeria/2016/Vittozzi
A woman sorts rice at a widows' house in Banki. Banki was captured by Boko Haram in September 2014 and retaken by the Nigerian military in September 2015.
A growing crisis in malnutrition

The ongoing Boko Haram-related crisis has resulted in seven million individuals across the four north-east states in desperate need of assistance. Approximately 54 per cent are children.

In Borno state alone, there are more than one million displaced people. The majority are staying with host families, but around 280,000 people live in official or unofficial camps. 

In a UNICEF health clinic in one camp, UNICEF Nutrition Specialist Andrew Sammy is screening children for signs of malnourishment.
Today, one mother has brought in her little girl. Staff carefully measure the circumference of her fragile arm. It measures just 9.5 cm – well below the 12.5 cm a healthy baby’s arm would measure. Her prominent bones and discoloured hair are further indicators of severe acute malnourishment. She's in urgent need of medical care and will be given food supplements to help her gain weight.

Sadly, this baby is one of thousands of children in urgent need of life-saving medical help. UNICEF estimates that 400,000 children in north-east Nigeria will suffer severe acute malnutrition this year. Without treatment, approximately one in five of those children – more than 75,000 – is likely to die.

"At the moment, the critical urgent gap we see in all the IDP camps is the availability of food," explains UNICEF's Senior Emergency Coordinator AbdulKadir Musse. "People could not cultivate in the last two years; still they do not have access to their cultivation areas… [and] all livelihoods are being lost. That’s why we see high rates of malnutrition."

As security gradually improves across the region, humanitarian agencies are accessing areas that have been too dangerous to get to before. In each new place, hundreds of thousands of people in need of urgent help are being discovered.

In Nigeria alone, UNICEF in collaboration with the Government and partners, has provided primary health care services to more than three million people with hundreds of thousands of children receiving psycho-social support, therapeutic feeding, access to safe water and education.

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*name has been changed to protect identity