Inside Maiduguri

The city at the heart of a silent emergency

On a warm afternoon on a backstreet in the city of Maiduguri, a teenage boy hunches over, polishing a pair of leather shoes.

The owner of the shoes seems oblivious to the boy's toils, instead concentrating on the bright three-wheeled keke-marwas that buzz in and out of the queues of cars.

Across the street, school girls in their dark green uniforms chase each other. Boys sell bags of water and papers to drivers that edge impatiently through red lights.

Maiduguri was once called 'the home of peace’ by the locals. It was renowned throughout Nigeria for its openness and hospitality.

No longer. Violence has come to the city and this region of north east Nigeria.

This city sits in the heartland of the humanitarian crisis affecting almost 11 million people across the Lake Chad region.

Across the region, millions have fled their rural homes into cities in search of the very basics - food, shelter and safety. Millions more have crossed the border into neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

Please donate to our Lake Chad Crisis appeal.

Extreme violence

"I will only return to my village when I know it is safe to go back, I will only go back when our security is guaranteed."

Falmata is just one of Maiduguri's million new residents. She made the arduous journey to the city on foot, with her young children in tow.

Falmata is from the village of Za Nguru in rural Borno State. The 21-year-old and her husband used to grow maize, beans and millet.

Their simple family life came to an abrupt end when armed men attacked the village. The family managed get away unscathed by the bullets that maimed so many of their community.

Now settled in a camp on the outskirts of town, Falmata hopes for a better future for her son Mohammed. "I hope that Mohammed will receive an education," she says, “because I have seen how this has improved lives. There is a school that’s been opened in the camp and I hope that he will be able to attend it.”

But life at the camp is both difficult and dangerous. Falmata’s first child – Mohammed’s brother – died from disease here. It’s unlikely the family can stay here long.

As well as prevalence of disease, the camp’s residents continue to live in the fear of frequent attacks. In March a bomb exploded killing four of the people. The ensuing fire burnt down many of the temporary straw huts that 4,000 families called home.

Despite everything she has been through, Falmata's struggles melt away as she cradles her baby. She has a reason to feel positive: she has received the good news that she is eligible to receive a cash grant from the Red Cross.

"I have seen how life in cities differs from rural areas," she says. “I’ve seen how women take part in petty trading. If I am lucky enough to receive a cash grant I will use it to set up this type of business to be able to provide for Mohammed.”

Slowly gaining strength

Falmata is one of the 'luckier' victims of a conflict characterised by extreme violence against civilians.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) surgical team at Maiduguri State Specialist Hospital has witnessed some of the very worst trauma created by the conflict. The wards at the hospital are full yet curiously still – their tranquillity broken only by ceiling fans which buzz reliably away as people lay on their beds.

One patient here, Abba, looks dazed. She hasn’t slept much lately. Two weeks ago Abba’s husband and four children were killed in their beds as they slept in their family home.

"I don’t know who threw the bombs or why they targeted us," Abba says as she perches on the edge of the bed she shares with her sons, five-year-old Ali and baby Mustafa. “I was asleep when the bombs went off but I haven’t slept since that night. I remember it was raining.”

The situation faced by people affected by violence is extremely difficult, especially for women who rely on their husbands to provide for them. The 40-year-old will have to provide for her two remaining family members alone.

Abba’s story is just one of thousands of personal tragedies in this crisis. 

On the bed opposite, Hajara fans her daughter Hadiza. You wouldn't guess Hadiza was nine from looking at her emaciated body. Nor would you guess she’s been receiving treatment here for a month already.

Hadiza is suffering from complications from the late treatment of typhoid – a result of the family’s limited access to clean water. The infection has perforated the lining of her stomach, leaving her with severe malnutrition.

Little by little, Hadiza is getting her strength back. When she first arrived here she was unable to even lift her own arms. Now she can reach her hands to her head.

She's awaiting an operation to repair her ruptured stomach lining from specialist surgeons but for now she must wait. She is still too weak for surgery. Her mother is making her eat her plumpy nut – a special peanut paste designed to build her weight – despite her occasional tears and protestations.

Over 515,000 children are suffering from malnutrition in the Lake Chad region with limited access to healthcare. According to the World Health Organisation, two thirds of health facilities in the region have been damaged or destroyed by the conflict. Many of those that remain lack the basic medicines to be able to treat people.

Health workers have also fled in fear for their lives. There would be not surgical team at Maiduguri State without the support of the Red Cross.

Targeting civilians

On the hospital's male ward 25-year-old Mustafa is recovering from bullet wounds to his leg.

He lies uncomfortably on his bed speaking to one of the Nigerian Red Cross psychosocial volunteers. Their role it is to support the mental side of recovery.

Leaving the refugee camp where he is staying is a risky but necessary business, he says."Life in the camp is hard, there isn't enough food to eat and we are often hungry. Some families farm in order to provide more food, I would go outside the camp to collect firewood to sell to other refugees."

Mustafa managed to survive a gun attack when he was out collecting firewood by playing dead. The friend he was with was killed.

"We buried my husband at my home in Bama, I can't even visit his grave to mourn him," says Falmata.

At the Farmer’s Widows’ Association in Maiduguri, the visibly emotional thirty-five-year-old does her best to avoid eye contact as she speaks.

Before the conflict Falmata used to live in her own home in Bama. She farmed millet with her husband. They also had a refrigerator at home they used to cool water to sell. That all changed when armed men entered the town.

"They rounded up all the men and took them to the prison," she says. “My four sons managed to escape but my husband was taken away. They released him around 40 days later but he had terrible injuries.”

Three days later Falmata’s husband died. It was then that, three months pregnant, she made the journey to the outskirts of Maiduguri after a gruelling 60 kilometre walk.

“I fled through the bush in the middle of the night, we left at around 1am. We left with nothing but the clothes on our backs. The journey was difficult. I had to wade through a river that was as high as my neck.”

"I feel that the future will be good"

The eight-year conflict here has left thousands of women widowed. Many lack a formal education and have very little to support themselves and their children.

The Red Cross works with local associations to provide over 8,000 women like Falmata with grants to set up businesses. For Falmata, this support has been life-changing.

"Before receiving the funds I made some money making and selling Bama caps," she says. "With the money that I have received I can now afford to knit more hats, I want to start a business for myself and my daughters. With the money I have received I'm able to rent an apartment for my family to live in.

"Receiving the cash grant has really helped me and my family. I didn’t sleep and I didn’t eat but now I have received these funds I feel better and look better, I feel that the future will be good.

"I hope for an education for all of my children and I want to see them excel in their studies – one of my sons is about to start his diploma and another is starting his degree. I want them to be able to assist people in need, like the work that the Red Cross do."

Please donate to our Lake Chad Crisis appeal.