NGOUBOUA, Chad (AFP) – Thousands of Nigerian civilians who fled the armed extremists of Boko Haram have become a headache for Chadian authorities after seeking safety on a multitude of scattered islands in Lake Chad.
“We waded through the water for several days and suffered so much,” recalled former taxi driver Adamou Bouba, who snatched up his toddlers, aged two and three, when Boko Haram fighters raided his village, Kiguili, and killed his wife.
After the deadly raid six months ago, Bouba, his children and their companions trekked north in fear of the extremists to the dusty, windswept Lake Chad basin in the far northeast of Nigeria and bordering on western Chad.
Here, after miles of negotiating the waterways, they settled on Chad’s Ngouboua peninsula, a strip of dry land three hours from the nearest town by a bad road. “There were 77 of us, but several people died on the way,” he said.
The luckier ones managed to grab places on overloaded canoes, but their only option was to reach the arid islands in Chadian territory, a few kilometres across the lake.
Bouba said that “we took five days to get here” without food and with no drinking water. When his family made dry land, Chadian soldiers “came to meet us”.
The waters extend into Cameroon and Niger in this remote frontier territory, but the lake has shrunk drastically since the 1960s, because of factors including overuse of resources and drought induced by global warming.
Scattered over tiny isles, families who frequently lost loved ones during the arduous trip now fend for themselves. Of some 17,000 Nigerians estimated to have fled to Chad, only 7,000 have been taken in to an established refugee camp, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Working out what to do with the bulk of the recent arrivals is a big puzzle for authorities in Chad’s capital N’Djamena, after an unsuccessful initial bid to gather the refugees together at Ngouboua.
“Providing humanitarian assistance is extremely difficult in these conditions. How can we load food for several thousand people on small canoes?” asked Ahamat Asselek of the Red Cross.
Refugee Aminata was picking up driftwood. “Nobody gives us food, nor is there soap to wash our clothes,” she said, grateful for help from local people in a region where increasingly scarce resources can spark communal conflicts.
“Since we arrived, villagers have taken care of us. We women went to beg and they took pity on us, giving us rice, maize meal and oil,” added the young woman with silver eyeshadow beneath her black veil.