Sahel Regional Crisis: Starting over in Sayam

Sahel Regional Crisis: Starting over in Sayam

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Fatouma Soumana, CARE Expert for Gender in Emergencies

A growing family struggles to survive in a refugee camp supported by CARE in Niger.

“My name is Balkissa*, I am 30 years old and the mother of four children. My husband’s name is Amadou, and together with our children we fled our home town of Damassak, Nigeria, when it was attacked by armed groups.

In Damassak, my husband was a farmer. I stayed at home looking after our children and sold some fruits and vegetables from our own garden at the market.

We had heard talk of armed groups launching attacks in other villages, and rumours circulated that soon there would also be an attack on Damassak. If not for the presence of a well-respected religious leader, it was said Damassak would have been attacked long ago. I was three months pregnant when this religious leader resigned and left Damassak. Paralysed with fear, I fled the town with my children to the house of a friend in a nearby village. A week later an attack hadn’t happened yet and there was not a lot of space in this house so I decided to return to Damassak.

What I did not know was that the hardest part was yet to come.

Eight days after we returned to Damassak, the town was attacked. A transport truck thought to have been carrying local products to the market was in fact carrying some unusual cargo: a group of armed men ready to attack.

It was 8am on a Monday morning when I heard the first gunshots. Mondays are market days, so my children were not at school. I took my son Abibou on my back, my daughter Farida on my shoulder and the older two in front; we took nothing with us as we ran away. The entire town ran together away from the fighting into the bush and across rivers. Once we were far enough away, I took a rest at a local mosque in a small village. My husband, having fled his farm, happened to seek refuge in the same mosque and we were very lucky to be reunited. However, in fleeing the bullets my husband lost his phone and all the money he had with him that day, leaving us with nothing.

After we were reunited we fled together to the border with Niger. We were met by soldiers and put on trucks to be driven to Gagamari refugee camp. Many other refugees had arrived at Gagamari before us, and so we spent 40 nights sleeping outside and only eating twice a day. There were no toilets, forcing us into unsanitary and unsafe conditions.

One day, more trucks came to transport us to Sayam refugee camp. At Sayam we were greeted by the UNHCR and given tents, a kitchen kit, floor mats and clothes for the children. Once a month, we receive rations of oil, grains and enriched flour. We eat our meals out of bowls donated by the local villagers.

We sold some of our rations to buy soap and other products, but then there wasn’t enough food for us to eat.  My husband began selling foodstuffs at the local market to supplement our rations.

We have water thanks to Abba, the CARE driver, who brings the water tank around the camp every day. Healthcare is free, and I receive prenatal consultations in the camp. My three girls are now able to go to school. Despite the support we receive, life is difficult here. I have seen many families leave the camp due to harsh living conditions and women turn to prostitution to make ends meet.

After a few months in Sayam my husband went back to our hometown in Nigeria to try to recover some of our things. None of our belongings remained in our house, and several dead bodies lie in our garden; surely people trying to escape the fighting.

We are not ready to return to Damassak. It will take a long time to forget the horrors we’ve seen. Despite the hope after the recent elections in Nigeria, we still hear reports of deadly attacks in northern Nigeria. We heard that children were massacred in Damassak, and that those who were not killed were kidnapped and have not been heard from since.

Here in Sayam camp, there are many difficulties but at least we are safe. Our tent is too small, and the heat is unmanageable with six of us in the tent, soon to be seven. My husband is in need of work to provide for our growing family and I require a sanitary kit ahead of the birth of my child. We are challenged here every day, but we will stay together in our small tent until peace has completely returned to Damassak.”


*The names in this story have been changed to protect the identity of those involved.