“With zero knowledge of where they were heading, I too hauled myself into the big truck that came to help people escape from Pulka, and we did not stop travelling until we reached Kano,” recalled Aliyu Mohammed, a 15-year-old orphan and an internally displaced person in Borno state.
“Life was hard in Kano because everyone went their separate ways as soon as the truck arrived. But I and some other kids were stranded. We scavenged for food around trailer parks and dreamed of better days,” he continued.
Aliyu is one amongst many of the children orphaned and displaced by the relentless Boko Haram insurgency in northeastern Nigeria.
Nine years ago, Aliyu was a little child who lived happily with his family before his life became irrevocably changed. His village, Pulka in Gwoza local government, fell under a brutal terror attack. His family was mercilessly killed, and his home was obliterated when an enemy bomb landed there.
The devastating impact of this unprecedented destruction by Boko Haram and later ISWAP continues to resonate throughout Borno, affecting both lives and properties. This widespread damage has not only left a harsh trail of ruin but also a generation of orphaned children, like Aliyu, grappling with the consequences.
Aliyu, who was just six years old at the time, managed to escape the tragic fate that befell his family solely because he had left home on an errand when the attack occurred.
“I was sent to go and call the water vendor at the borehole centre, but when I returned home after the attack I saw our house on fire and they said everybody including my parents were killed,” he said with a sad face.
In the chaotic aftermath, he was whisked away in a volunteer truck that conveyed fleeing residents out of Pulka to as far as where they felt safer. The folks in the truck that conveyed Aliyu ended its journey in Kano, northwest Nigeria, where he joined ranks with other children in a desperate bid for survival.
His dreams of a brighter future guided him and a group of other displaced children at the Kano truck park to Lagos. There, they found homes under bridges and within the structures of incomplete buildings. Their livelihood depended on scavenging plastic bottles to sell for cash. Despite the harsh reality of his circumstances, Aliyu’s spirit of resilience remained.
However, Lagos was not the promised land he had hoped for, especially for kids in his age bracket.
“Life became difficult for me, and I wanted to return to Borno,” Aliyu told HumAngle in an interview granted with the permission of his guardian.
He said a concerned northerner helped him board another reticulated truck to return to Borno, where he found refuge in the Gubio IDP Camp.
Despite the relative safety of the camp, Aliyu was attracted to the underbelly of the Shagari Low-Cost’s notorious Kasuwan Fara, a suburb known for alcoholism, drugs, and a thriving brothel and prostitution business, where he became an errand boy for drug addicts.
Aliyu said he didn’t want to live in a brothel, even as a proprietor who fancied him as a smart chap offered to give him a space in one of the unoccupied rooms after the closing hours. He preferred the IDP camp.
But even at the camp, Aliyu still had to depend on the Kasuwan Fara ecosystem to survive.
When the Gubio IDP Camp was shut down late last year, Aliyu found himself stranded again. This time, however, he was taken in by a kind-hearted female IDP, Maryam Sani, who decided to shelter him in Maiduguri township.
“I couldn’t ignore him,” Maryam, a 30-year-old single mother of a teenage daughter, said.
“I feared he would be more vulnerable to vices if I left him as many had done.”
She plans to enrol Aliyu in school and hopes to take him to Pulka to trace any surviving family members. However, she worries about the future. “I fear being accused of child abduction,” she admits.
Aliyu needed to be in school, but Maryam is finding it difficult to help him because she has to take care of her aged mother, a 16-year-old daughter, and two other orphaned nieces left behind by her bereaved sister.
“I want Aliyu to start going to school because his staying at home idle will only make him vulnerable to joining bad gangs,” she said.
Aliyu’s story is common
In 2017, the Borno state government announced that they had registered at least 56,000 children orphaned by the Boko Haram insurgency and that most of these children would be enrolled in the then 20 mega schools constructed by the state. Officials said these children, who had no immediate relations would remain under the government’s care, even after other displaced individuals have returned to their communities.
In 2018, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) in collaboration with the Borno state government enrolled about 300 children who lost either or both parents in the insurgency in a private school for orphans in Maiduguri.
Despite these efforts, many children like Aliyu fall through the cracks. Without access to education, they are left to fend for themselves, vulnerable to exploitation, and abuse.
“The closure of the Gubio IDP Camp left many children stranded,” said Maryam. “If I had acted like others who ignored Aliyu when departing the closed camp, only God knows what would have become of him by now.”
The future of these children is uncertain. However, their resilience and determination to overcome their circumstances offer a beacon of hope.
When asked about his future dreams, Aliyu said, “I want to be a soldier like my father.”
“I want to fight for my country and protect people from suffering like I did.”
Borno State governor, Babagana Zulum, in August 2021 personally supervised the enrollment of school-aged children who lost their parents to the insurgency.
The enrollment was during the governor’s visit to Monguno, in the northern part of Borno state where 5361 orphans were registered during the two-day exercise.
The enrolled children, aged between seven and 13, were each provided with free uniforms, writing materials, and free meals at school on the directives of the governor.
Similarly, in August 2022, the state governor supervised the enrollment of another batch of over 7,000 out-of-school children, including orphans from Monguno, Kukawa, Guzamala, and Marte local government areas, into some of the mega schools in the northern part of the state, where Boko Haram insurgents have displaced thousands of residents.
A total of 154 children who were orphaned by the insurgency graduated on Sept. 22, from primary to secondary classes at a special learning centre, Osinbajo School for Orphans that was set up by the federal government in 2018.
However, despite these efforts, the government program has not fully captured many of the unaccompanied orphans in both the official and unofficial IDP camps.
Maryam explained that a significant number of unaccompanied orphans face great difficulty in accessing opportunities due to the lack of direct guardianship.
“The orphans who were fortunate enough to attend school were either supported by their relatives or they are those who had their mothers present, yet they were still considered orphans. As a result, when the official camps shut down and people started to leave, the true orphans within the camps became evident.”
Maryam expressed her belief that those who provided shelter for unaccompanied children while in camps did so for their selfish motives.
“When the government or NGO were to distribute the food, they based it on the number of individuals in each household,” she explained. “They included these abandoned orphans in the count to receive more food or money. However, when the government instructed us to evacuate the camps, they abandoned the orphans, stating that they had no right to bring them along.”
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