Survivors' stories: Documenting the human cost of Boko Haram

GMT 08:38 2015 Saturday ,31 October

Arab Today, arab today Survivors' stories: Documenting the human cost of Boko Haram

People look at a poster in Maiduguri
Kano - AFP

Ibrahim fled his home in Gwoza, northeast Nigeria, in August last year, when invading Boko Haram fighters took over the town as part of the Islamist group's self-declared caliphate.

The businessman lost his home, cars, money and his brother, who was shot dead as they fled the carnage, spending 14 days on the road and barely eating.

He now lives with his two wives and 13 children in a camp for displaced people 130 kilometres (80 miles) away in the Borno state capital, Maiduguri.

The family relies on handouts for food and his children cannot go to school because they can't afford the fees.

With more than 2.5 million people displaced by the violence in Nigeria's northeast since the start of the Boko Haram insurgency in 2009, Ibrahim's story is just one of many testimonies by survivors of the militants' macabre attacks.

Such stories are often lost in reports of relentless bombings, deaths and military offensives.

But now, civil society activist Saratu Abiola is trying to change that through an online resource, to raise awareness across the world of the devastating human effects of the conflict.

- Myth-busting -

The accounts of mass killings, rape, abductions, arson and looting on Abiola's Testimonial Archive Project (TAP) don't make easy reading.

But she said it was vital to record people's stories of a conflict that, despite an estimated 17,000 deaths, still fails to grab headlines at home and abroad.

"This is a small nation-building project," Abiola told AFP by phone from Nigeria's financial hub, Lagos, some 1,000 kilometres from the epicentre of the violence.

"It is intended to spark dialogue and advocacy on the humanitarian consequences of the Boko Haram insurgency by raising awareness through documenting the horrendous personal experiences of survivors of the violence."

The TAP, which has now been running for more than a year, also aims to dispel many of the myths that have been created about the conflict.

One argument in the Christian-majority south has been that the violence in the mainly Muslim north was designed to scupper Goodluck Jonathan's re-election chances as president earlier this year.

"I wanted to project a depoliticised picture of the situation and put things in clearer perspective, and dispel all the wrong notions and assumptions a section of the country had on the violence, which is having devastating impact on Nigeria," said Abiola.

International attention on Boko Haram peaked after the mass abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls from Chibok in Borno state, northeast Nigeria, in April 2014.

Abiola had already decided to act in February that year, after Boko Haram gunmen slaughtered more than 40 boys at a boarding school in Buni Yadi, in Yobe state.

She had never been to the northeast, but managed to make contact with local activists, who then helped begin the process of meeting survivors of attacks.

- 'Started a conversation' -

"At first, a lot of people didn't want to talk to me because they were either sceptical of my motive as an outsider or were scared of reprisals from Boko Haram if they talked," she said.

Gradually, stories were gathered and published online at, providing an insight into the nature and complexities of the violence.

"A lot of us who don't live in these areas don't have an idea of what the insurgency is all about," she said.

President Muhammadu Buhari recently said his goal was to have all IDPs back home by the first anniversary of his taking office on May 29 next year.

But with towns and villages devastated, that still looks a tall order.

Of the 2.5 million displaced, more than 2.1 million are in Nigeria, with the vast majority staying with host families or relatives.

International agencies have complained that not enough is being done to assist the displaced, who face poor living conditions in the camps and frequent outbreaks of disease.

Since the TAP's creation, some aid has been sent as well as donations from private individuals and corporate bodies.

Security analysts and human rights groups have also tapped into the project's growing number of testimonies for use in their reports.

"There is much more awareness now, but I don't think that is enough achievement because our goal is to influence deliberate government policy on the reintegration of the displaced, which will lead to the closure of all IDP camps and settlement of all displaced persons," she said.

"As far as I'm concerned, we have only started a conversation, but the goal is far-off," said Abiola.

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