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Recurring Fire Disasters In Borno Worsen IDPs’ Troubles

IDPs in northeastern Nigeria living in camps mostly built of thatched shanties are recording more losses and threats to life due to fire outbreaks.

Bintu Ari was known as a cheerful woman who had vowed not to allow even the Boko Haram crisis to steal her joy. But that changed on Saturday, Jan. 15. 

After she was displaced from Dumbasa, a village in Borno, Northeast Nigeria, years ago, the 49-year-old joined other fleeing kinsmen and neighbours to settle at the outskirts of Gongulon, a rice farming community in Jere Local Government Area (LGA). 

While other women formed a habit of going to the streets of Maiduguri to beg for alms, Bintu rented a piece of land where she engaged in farming rice and other cereals. 

The mother of six said though she came from a peasant farming family, her parents inculcated the attitude of self-reliance in them. It makes her happy each time she sees herself living out the family tradition. Those who know her said, “you can never see her being moody or idle.” 

But that changed last weekend when a fire broke out at the Internally Displaced People’s community of thatch shelters and razed down all that she had worked for. 

The Dumbasa IDP camp has about 80 households, most of them farmers. Though it is not one of the registered IDP camps in Borno, the community was able to get services like public toilets and a borehole fitted with four 3,000 litre overhead water storage tanks. 

When the mysterious fire outbreak occurred, it took the IDPs by surprise as most of them could not salvage their belongings — especially their already-harvested food crops. 

Bintu lost both her annual rice harvest and monies she recently inherited from her late parent in the fire incident. Photo credit: Abdulkareem/HumAngle

Bintu had this year harvested 11 bags of rice which she hoped to sell at the right time. “The fire burnt down everything that I risked my life to cultivate, leaving me with nothing,” she said in a tone mixed with anger and grief. 

She also lost some personal valuables. But what broke her heart the most was the huge sum of money she had recently brought home. “I lost a lot of cash as well,” she said, tears running down her face. She then turned and left without uttering another word. 

“The fire incident happened a day after she had gone to collect a share of her inheritance which her late father left for her and the siblings,” explained Bashir Bukar, a neighbour.  

“They sold some of their late father’s landed properties and her share was about ₦1.5 million, which she brought home and kept inside her thatch hut. Everything got burnt and we all saw the burnt plastic sack that contained the burnt cash.” 

Since the incident, Bintu had lost the cheerful face that used to be her signature. “She has not been by herself for the past few days; she seriously needs help,” Bukar observed. 

Bintu is not the only resident of the Dumbasa IDP community who has faced a reversal in fortune. Many of them had their share of painful stories to tell. 

Ahmad Ismail, 60, a farmer and IDP from Dumbasa was dejected when he spoke to this reporter. His reddened eyes were a bit tucked in their sockets even as his right index finger kept on ticking on the rosary he held with both hands. A bit confused, Ismail needed the question to be repeated before he could answer. 

“I am a Dumbasa villager from where Boko Haram insurgents chased me to this place some years ago,” he said. 

“Ever since I arrived here, my family and I have been farmers and we cultivate all kinds of crops. But this year we focused more on beans because the market is good for that. We had just finished harvesting the beans and we got about 30 bags. Sadly, everything, including my belongings, got burnt in the fire. My two sheep also died in the fire because they were tethered before the outbreak.” 

A bag of beans currently costs about ₦35,000 in the markets around Borno State.

Ahmad Ismail lost 30 bags of newly harvested beans in the fire that razed the Dumbasa IDP camp. Photo credit: Abdulkareem/HumAngle

Since the beginning of the dry season last October, about eight cases of fire outbreaks have been reported in IDP camps in the state. Lives were lost in some of the incidents. 

The Borno State Emergency Management Agency (SEMA) had visited Dumbasa village to commiserate with the victims. 

SEMA Director-General Yabawa Kolo, who led a team that included alongside other officials of the Borno state government, said they visited the camp to provide the first response after assessment, and that the government would later move in to provide substantial support at a later date. 

“After the incident had occurred on Saturday, we reported to the government and then checked our stores to see what we can quickly provide for lifesaving assistance in line with our core responsibility after a rescue mission during a disaster.” 

Kolo said the Agency had been able to provide some bags of food items like rice, wheat flour, spaghetti, cooking oil, as well as clothing and some basic household utensils for women. 

She said the agency had during the visit also given the IDPs cautionary lectures on how to avoid igniting their home, especially during the harmattan “when the wind behaviour is unpredictable”.

“We have 80 households that were affected and this happens because of the inherent vulnerability in the camp that is mostly populated with thatched houses,” she said.  

Way out 

The SEMA DG and the state lawmaker representing Jere LGA, Aji Kolo Ibrahim Khadi, informed HumAngle that the government needed to provide an alternative to the sheltering pattern in camps to avert recurrences. 

“We are beginning to look for alternative means of shelter for the people in IDP camps because what we have now is not fire-friendly,” Kolo said. “We are looking at acquiring material that is fire-repellent so that it can be made the standard items to be used in erecting shanties in camp.” 

Officials of the Borno SEMA, other government functionaries led by DG Kolo on a sympathy visit at Dumbasa. Photo credit: Abdulkareem/HumAngle

Khadi also emphasised the need for the deployment of fireproof tenting materials in camps to cut down the prevalence of fire incidents. 

“While the government tries to provide this, we also call on the residents of the camps to always ensure they imbibe safe practices while cooking in their homes by ensuring that cooking station is far away from the thatched houses, and also by ensuring that they quench the fire using water after they are done with their cooking,” he urged.

“We have had a session with the DG SEMA on how best we can engage the ministry of reconstruction, rehabilitation and resettlement (RRR) on how best we can generally improve the shelters in camps to avoid the incessant loss of lives and properties.” 

The lawmaker called on the ministry of water resources to assist the community to install new plastic overhead tanks that have been burnt by the fire. “The need to restore these overhead tanks is also very critical to survival and hygiene in the camp,” he said.

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Abdulkareem Haruna

Abdulkareem Haruna is a Nigerian journalist currently employed as the Editor for Lake Chad at HumAngle. For over a decade, he has demonstrated a passionate commitment to reporting on the Boko Haram conflict and the crisis in the Lake Chad region of northeastern Nigeria. He is a graduate of English Language and holds a Diploma in Mass Communications. Prior to his current role, he served as an assistant editor at both Premium Times and Leadership Newspaper.

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