Since late 2014, the region of Diffa in southern Niger has been caught in armed conflict. Two-hundred and fifty-thousand people have been forced out of their homes, two-thirds of them children. Fighting, flight and loss have had a devastating impact on their lives. Halisa, Mohammed, Asan, Aïcha, Mariam and Issa are among the children directly affected by harrowing violence. They have all participated in the mental health programme that MSF runs in Diffa to assist the victims. Here are their stories.
Hindatou is 23-years-old and has two younger siblings, 14-year-old Mohammed and 13-year-old Halisa. They come from northern Nigeria. They were kidnapped by an armed group and spent several months in captivity before fleeing and reuniting with part of their family. Hindatou tells us her story of loss and uncertainty.
“Before [the violence broke out], we had assets, we had everything. Our father grew millet, rice and corn in a large field.
The conflict deprived us of everything. In our village, many people were killed. Several relatives died from thirst because we walked for four days without water when we were fleeing the conflict.
My three brothers, my little sister and I were kidnapped by an armed group. The group wanted me to get married to one of them. Since I was already married, I refused. They threatened to kill me if I refused to accept this new marriage, but I stayed strong. To try and scare me, they imprisoned me for 10 days. Luckily, before they found a husband for me, I managed to flee with Halisa and Mohammed. First, we went to Toumour [a village in Niger, near the border with Nigeria], and then to Kindjandi. We found our parents and other relatives. There are now 10 of us in the family. We still don’t know what happened to my other two brothers who were also kidnapped but didn’t manage to escape when we did. I have two children and I am currently raising them alone because my husband has gone to Nigeria in search of food. Sometimes I hear from him via telephone calls.
The time we spent with the armed group has left an impact on my brother and sister. When my sister is in a group, she’s fine; but when she’s alone, especially at night, she has nightmares. She is always restless. My brother also has nightmares because he saw the armed group killing people: they killed a man and a woman right in front of him. We came here to find a solution if one exists so that he can recover.”
Twelve-year-old Anas and his parents left Nigeria four years ago. Anas’ parents were small traders and the family lived well, but they had to give everything up due to the conflict. Anas has six siblings. Ten months ago, his father went to Chad in search of job opportunities to try and support the family.
Anas’ mother told us: “When our town was attacked, we fled on foot. There were dead people, lost people. My nephew was shot dead. My son saw people killed by armed groups, he saw corpses. He saw everything with his own eyes. When he thinks about it, he cries. He didn’t want to be in a group as a result of this experience and he stopped eating. Sometimes when people would call his name, he didn’t even hear them. He’s improved since he started participating in the MSF programme. He’s started eating and playing with his friends again. He now responds when his name is called. His older brother is going through the same problems. I have to bring him to the programme too.”
Nine-year-old Aïcha and her mother Fatsouma.
Fatsouma: “The armed group attacked our small village and forced us to flee. We heard gunshots, and one of our cousins was hit by a stray bullet when we tried to escape. We took refuge in a town called Kanama, but there wasn’t anything to eat, water was hard to come by and my children cried. Then we went to Niger. Here, Aïcha stopped playing and was always sitting alone. She found it hard to eat and was losing weight. She had nightmares which woke her up. She would get up and run, fleeing the village, and I had to run after her. The programme has helped her a lot. She doesn’t have nightmares any more, and now she goes out to play with her friends. Out of the nine children in the family, she was the only one with these problems. I never thought that one day we would end up in a camp for displaced people. But I don’t want to go back to Nigeria—at least here we have something to eat.”
Ten-year-old Mariam and her grandmother Aïcha.
Aïcha: “I am Mariam's grandmother. We fled from our village because of an attack. Some members of the family were killed, and others were kidnapped. Mariam saw it, and she also saw corpses. She lost her mother, father and siblings as she was fleeing, and to this date, she still doesn’t know what happened to them, or even if they are alive or dead. In Kindjandi, life is difficult: I can’t work anymore, we don’t have anything to eat and there isn’t anyone helping us. Mariam begs in order to eat, asking for money with her little cup. One day, a man called her name and took her off the side of the road. He drugged her and raped her. She even ended up spending the night at this man’s house. I was constantly looking for her and couldn’t find her. The next morning, a child saw her and brought her home. She did not stop crying. Finally, we came here and she started receiving care. She still needs help. She hasn’t been the same since they drugged her, it’s not like it once was.”
Ten-year-old Issa and his grandmother, refugees from Nigeria.
The grandmother told us Issa’s story: “Boko Haram arrived at our village firing from their vehicles, and the family had to flee. Issa was kidnapped by the group because he was alone. Boko Haram asked him where he was going. He replied that he was looking for his parents, and they promised to take him home. He spent six months with the group. I didn’t find him. I couldn’t eat or sleep—all I did was cry and think of him. I was very happy when I finally found my grandson because I was alone. He is the only person I have left.
One of the children kidnapped alongside Issa was a boy who smoked, and Boko Haram saw him holding a cigarette. Smoking was prohibited, and they killed him. Issa saw it. One day, when the Boko Haram members learned that there was a plane flying nearby they all hid, and Issa took this opportunity to flee. He came across some Fula people on the way, who took him to Toumour [a village in Niger, close to the border with Nigeria]. There, they said that there was a boy who was lost and looking for his parents. They drew a picture of me and someone recognised me. That’s how we were reunited. But since then, he has been restless. When he leaves the house in the morning, he doesn’t come back. You have to bring him home. I worry greatly because I don’t even know where he goes when he’s not here.”
Read, interview with Cristina Carreño, MSF's mental health advisor here.