When Boko Haram strikes, it has the effect of a forest fire, driving every living thing before it in a panicked stampede. And as with forest fires, there is sometimes little warning the Nigerian terrorist group is coming.
This was the case in late October 2014, when hundreds of Boko Haram extremists loaded on to motorbikes, pickup trucks and tanks, and made a sudden and unexpected strike southwards. They sped down from Borno state, the epicentre of a five-year conflict that has displaced more than 1m people in Nigeria’s remote and impoverished northeast, where the group is fighting to carve out an Islamic caliphate.
Staff from the International Rescue Committee — the FT’s partner for its 2014-15 seasonal appeal, and one of the few international aid agencies operating in the conflict zone — were caught unawares in the city of Mubi, where they had made their headquarters. “We had started hearing rumours that they were coming. But we were still trying to verify these when the city fell,” says Sarah Ndikumana, IRC’s representative in Nigeria.
The IRC has been operating in Nigeria since 2012, when it came on an emergency mission to help people displaced by the most severe flooding the country had seen in 80 years. Nearly 2m were forced from their homes after two dams burst, leading to a surge in water levels on the rivers Niger and Benue.
The flooding received little international attention. Until recently, the same was the case for the humanitarian crisis provoked by Boko Haram. So instead of leaving the country when the flood waters subsided, the IRC reassigned staff to begin assisting Nigerians displaced by the insurgency.
“It was a growing crisis and there were very few people helping on the ground,” says Mrs Ndikumana.
The IRC picked the town of Mubi, in Adamawa state as its base, and from there fanned out into six local government areas, where they provided hygiene training, food supplies and other basic necessities to some of the thousands of Nigerians fleeing the attacks.
Adamawa at the time was less directly affected by the violence. But on October 29 that changed. Mubi was rapidly over-run and the 18 IRC staff there were caught behind Boko Haram lines.
“They [Boko Haram] burnt down a police station, attacked a market and then went into a military barracks to free prisoners. Our staff were on lockdown,” says Mrs Ndikumana.
Before dawn the next day, the IRC staff slipped out, leaving new computers, 4x4 vehicles and other assets behind. One group trekked south to Yola along with tens of thousands of inhabitants from Mubi. The other went east into neighbouring Cameroon before re-entering Nigeria. Between them they walked hundreds of kilometres.
More than 10,000 people have died in violence linked to Boko Haram in the past year. Car bombings, ambushes and raids similar to the one on Mubi occur on a near daily basis. Earlier last year, Boko Haram gained international notoriety when it kidnapped 276 girls from their school dormitory.
Nobody knows how many other girls have been taken nor how many young men have been forced to join the rebels. In many instances Boko Haram has singled out young men for decapitation after raiding villages. Rape is becoming endemic. And, according to the IRC, many of the people they are helping have been forced to flee on many occasions.
“They lose everything over and over again and end up fleeing with nothing. All of them have stories of losing family members . . . the trauma is the worst I have seen anywhere,” says Mrs Ndikumana, who has previously worked in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
What distinguishes this conflict is the ferocity of the insurgents, with whom there is little scope for pleading. “In other conflicts you can negotiate access. Here there is no one to go to. You see them — you run,” says Mrs Ndikumana.
In recent months, as many as 300,000 people have fled south into Yola, the regional capital of Adamawa state. Only a small percentage are in government-run camps for the displaced. The rest are surviving in and around town, living in church and mosque compounds and depending on the generosity of both friends and strangers. The average household in the city now has about 30 people.
“It’s a massive burden on host communities,” says Mrs Ndikumana.
IRC staff — most of whom are either Nigerian or from other African countries — have relocated to Yola, where they offer food distribution through a voucher system to 1,700 households. They also help provide necessities such as sheeting, sleeping mats, mosquito nets and cooking utensils.
With so many people packed into the city there is a growing danger that diseases such as cholera will spread. “We are reaching maybe 13,000 people out of 300,000. This is the frustration,” says Mrs Ndikumana.
The Nigerian Red Cross is also active in the area. But other international NGOs or UN agencies have almost no presence. “Our game plan is to scale up here if we can get the funding and the international community recognises this for the crisis that it is,” says Mrs Ndikumana.
Read more about IRC’s work and donate at ft.com/seasonalappeal