As part of the 2016 women’s History Month Program, the United States Embassy, Abuja organized a seminar themed: Women as Victims of Terrorism and I was privileged to be an attendee. Privilege because I had a rare opportunity to hear directly from some Nigerians at the forefront of catering to the needs of those in the Internally Displaced Peoples (IDPs) camps across the North East of the country, majority of which are women and children. Information that will not be accessed unless ones comes in contact with these people and the work they do, because the official channels of communication do not give them enough coverage and the government is “busy” with more pressing issues.
I had to hold back tears listening to different stories and firsthand accounts of the situations in the camps. The human tragedies that have befallen these people, the material and human losses they have suffered and still suffer in the camps. The inadequate arrangements in the camps, and alleged diversion of relief materials meant for these camps, the continued exploitation of women and girls in these camps, the inadequacy of government participation, and the multitudes of orphans and widows created by the insurgency.
After hearing the stories of mothers relaying atrocities such as rapes, killings, and deaths witnessed while in captivity by Boko Haram, the anger becomes palpable especially when one considers the amounts of money that have been stolen and diverted from the fight against Boko Haram that would have prevented these losses or the current situations in the camps in addition to government’s response ranging from slow to outright neglect of the situation.
It dawn on me while listening that while the government tells us daily that Boko Haram is nearing its end, a new silent enemy created by these events is raring to manifest; those that have gone through these atrocities suffer different forms of psychological trauma and Post traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD) that are seemingly being ignored while the fight against the physical enemy continues. This is even made worse by the fact that such things are not fully understood neither are their devastating effects on the lives of people fully appreciated in this part of the world.
How does someone who has witnessed the beheading, rape, and other atrocities of family members return to normal live, how do children in their formative years who have spent months in captivity being indoctrinated by Boko Haram fit back into society, how do women who had been forcefully married to Boko Haram fighters and had even taken part in these atrocities reintegrated into the society among those who were victims and know of their involvements? The questions can go on. Our society has very little skillset in managing unseen enemies; from denial to ascribing it to the gods, to accepting it as fate. We rarely have answers for what we cannot describe or understand and usually take the wrong steps in dealing with it. And where we do have the answers or solutions, other unimaginable things prevent its deployment.
There is a case of a girl that was returned home to her parents from Boko Haram captivity, her mother went out of the house only to come back to find out that the girl had killed her younger sister because the little girl was “annoying her”. There is also another case of a 10 year old boy that was almost beheaded by his peers in an IDPs camp. These attitudes to life were picked up in captivity and are expressions of the psychological state of these victims. How can they be reintegrated into society without causing harm to others or themselves? The government and people have to recognize that this is a clear and present danger and start the second phase of the war on Boko Haram: fighting to reclaim the hearts and minds of those that have been affected.
This campaign is going to be more herculean in nature taking into consideration the diversity of experiences and dynamic nature of human beings. The experiences and its effects will differ and so will the approaches to dealing with it. Even if it means getting international help from countries with established competencies in this area, it needs to be done. We cannot have any residues of tendencies or ideologies perpetuated by the insurgents in our societies (Boko Haram proxies); this will only be a recipe for the next and potentially more dangerous group. Successfully reintegration and return to “normal” life for these people is seriously at risk.
While we can claim that Boko Haram took us unawares, the lessons we have learnt from this and the new information about our vulnerability to such happening should not be discarded. There needs to be new curriculum of study introduced into our educational system to harness and utilize this new knowledge. Conflict resolution, security awareness, treatment of PTSDs, and the like should be made courses in our schools of higher learning and not just topics we skim through. This will help us to develop knowledge bases and build competencies to deal with future events, stopping them from snowballing into what Boko Haram is today.
As a matter of fact, the war against Boko Haram will continue for as long as we have people within our society that have been affected and are yet to let go of the atrocities they have experienced and witnessed. The government has the urgent task of providing psychotraumatic treatment for all those that have passed through this experience; this includes our military personnel and their families too. We as a people have a role to play in destigmatizing those that have been forced actors, their reintegration into society, and their continued existence within us. Until we do this, the war on Boko Haram goes on, more people will be affected, and its long term effects will drag on.
So before we get to that point of being drawn into another needless and unending circle of violence needing a cure, let us make use of the most effective weapon that we can easily lay our hands on within our society: prevention. We are not very good with curing situations.
Adopt a camp today. Be your brothers’ keeper. It is unfortunate they are the ones there, if not for God’s grace and mercy, it could easily have happened to any of us.
God bless Nigeria.