A baby I met at an International Rescue Committee clinic in Maiduguri was injured by Boko Haram before he was even born. Four months after his mother, Kawsey, was shot in the chest and shoulder by insurgents while running through the bush to escape an attack, his eyes dart back and forth uncontrollably – an eerie reminder of the traumatic circumstances under which he was brought into this world, and of the little opportunities he will have ahead. Yet Kawsey ended up at this clinic not because of her gun wounds, but because her baby is severely malnourished. “There is no food,” she told me, during yet another unsuccessful attempt to breastfeed her son. They had survived against all odds, but her miracle baby was now hanging on for dear life.
I have been rewriting this story for a week now. How can I come up with a headline that is compelling enough to make you want to read my story and be outraged by the events I describe? How do I make sure that you understand the urgency of the situation, and the tangibility of a solution? After all, this is, in the end, another story about starving children in Africa. You know it’s important, but there are too many crises in the world: “Nothing will change. It’s just the way it is. There is nothing we can do about it.”
Except that you are wrong. There are over two million reasons to be outraged, and we have the solutions to address them if only we pay attention and act—not tomorrow, but today. Despite the massive scale of this crisis, the 2017 humanitarian appeal is only 1.8% funded.
A little over a year ago, Maiduguri and all of Borno State were too dangerous even for the most intrepid humanitarian. It was the birthplace and center of operations of Boko Haram, the deadliest terrorist group in the world. The insurgents started targeting schools, then mosques and markets, then the military . They engaged in “scorched-earth policy,” arriving in a town or village and burning it to the ground, killing innocent men and women and abducting young girls.
Now that Boko Haram has largely been driven out of Maiduguri, those terrorized in surrounding villages have sought refuge and safety here. Boko Haram has destroyed their homes, their livelihoods. There are no schools. There are no health centers. There is no food. Sarah Ndikumana, who has been the IRC country director for Nigeria for the past two-and-a-half years, told me, “We are seeing famine-like conditions for many of these populations who have been stranded, isolated, and terrorized under Boko Haram.”
Kawsey’s experience is not unique. Everyone in Maiduguri has a story to tell, each one just as horrifying as the next. So many lives wasted for no good reason. Aisha, a 12-year-old girl, has had nightmares since Boko Haram killed her uncle right in front of her two years ago. “I had a heart break,” she told me. Maryam, a patient at the IRC-run reproductive health center in Bakassi camp, recounts pregnant women giving birth “on the spot” while fleeing an attack. Abubakar Musa, a longtime educator in Maiduguri, “saw corpses littered in the streets…corpses of people who are supposed to have used their lives for important things.”
The beds in the clinic are all taken as the war against Boko Haram rages on, and the tiniest generation of Nigerians is grappling with a near-famine. Over 2 million children have severe acute malnutrition. If the situation is not addressed, 205 of them will die each day. Right now, we cannot even meet the needs of the people in Maiduguri—and they are the "lucky" ones. Increased access into newly retaken areas is opening all of our eyes to the sheer scope of this tragedy as populations are receiving assistance for the first time in years.
We saw this coming, and yet we don’t have a system in place to address predictable crises early. This is why we need better aid. The earlier we respond, the cheaper it is and the more lives we save. Over 5 million people are now facing critical food deficits in northeastern Nigeria. We cannot wait until a famine is declared, because that designation means that people are already dying—by definition, that response would be too late.
Do I have your attention yet? We are facing a lost generation—a generation of children who, even if they make it to their fifth birthday, will be emotionally and physically stunted; who will not have the opportunity to go to school, get a job, and live in a safe and stable environment. There is no better way for Boko Haram to recruit than within a context of impossible choices.
Almost every household has taken in displaced families, and households of five now must feed 25. Yet not once did I hear someone complain. Quite the contrary. “We in Maiduguri, we have seen suffering. We have seen real suffering,” Abubakar said. “No matter how little we have, we shared. We tried to help because […] we know the conditions we also found ourselves [in] when the heat was on in Maiduguri. That was how we took in these refugees. We did that wholeheartedly.”
And what are we doing in some other parts of the world? Banning refugees. Sending them home, abandoning any common decency.
The truth is, no one can survive in circumstances like these in Nigeria. We must do more. These children, women and men deserve the opportunity to start over, to create businesses and jobs, to go to school, to feel safe. The IRC and other humanitarian groups working in northeastern Nigeria seek to provide these opportunities. But until others join us, until the world wakes up and pays attention, nothing will change. Children will continue to die, schools will remain closed, and the cycle of despair will never end for the people of northeastern Nigeria.
In pictures: helping children survive
IRC mobile medical teams bring nutrition screenings and healthcare to communities in Nigeria where health services have been destroyed by war. The IRC and our partners also help children heal from the trauma of the conflict.