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Smiles as Boko Haram child victims dance again at Niger camp

In a shed at the heart of the Assaga refugee camp in southeast Niger, around 50 children sing and dance, masking the deep emotional trauma inflicted on them by Boko Haram.

Nearby, little girls who fled the brutal Islamists in neighbouring Nigeria huddle around jigsaw puzzles, while barefoot young boys in ragged clothes or shirtless play football and table tennis.

The camp has no school, but staff from UN agencies and specialised charities do their best to help the youngsters, who make up the majority of the around 6,000 refugees here who were routed from their villages by Boko Haram.

Special help is being provided by psychologists to 1,011 of the children, seen as among the most vulnerable victims of the violence, to adapt to a new life, often in the wake of terrible events.

“Many children were witnesses or the direct victims of atrocities by Boko Haram,” says Adama Cossimbo, head of the psychological help centre financed by the Italian non-governmental organisation COOPI.

“Boko Haram forced some children to watch their mothers or sisters being raped,” a UN relief worker says. “Others saw their father or their brother having his throat slit.”

The trauma was so severe for some that when they first arrived in Assaga, they would not eat or speak, he adds.

– ‘On the right path’ –

According to COOPI, many of the children show signs of mental illness.

“We’re developing games and activities to strengthen their resilience after the trauma they’ve endured,” says Cossimbo, who works with a psychologist and teachers.

Along with sports and games, relief workers give puzzles and memory quizzes to the children cared for at the centre.

Two months on, Cossimbo is optimistic. “They sing and seem to be their old cheerful selves… We’re on the right path towards their ‘reconstruction’,” he claims with pride.

Nine-year-old Ali lost part of his family in a Boko Haram raid and has said nothing for days on end, but he manages to whisper: “I escaped from Boko Haram and I feel good here.”

For Ali’s father, wealthy bell pepper grower Elhadj Gremah, forced exile is sheer “humiliation”.

“In the village, my children had all they needed to eat. Here they don’t go to school and they sometimes sleep on empty stomachs,” he complains.

At Assaga, huts supported with tree branches compete with standard-issue tents provided by the United Nations. First created by UN staff three months ago, the camp looks like a shantytown.

– ‘Severe security crisis’ –

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that some 1.4 million children have fled Islamist attacks in Nigeria and neighbouring Niger, Cameroon and Chad in the past five months.

These regional nations have joined forces against Boko Haram as the Islamists have launched bloody cross-border raids.

“The flow of refugees and the lack of resources seriously compromises our ability to provide vital aid on the ground,” the UN agency recently reported.

During a visit to the Diffa zone in mid-September, Toby Lanzer, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel, remarked on the “very severe security crisis” at Assaga.

“The situation here is atrocious,” he added. “People are traumatised.”

Diffa has for three years been confronted with food shortages because of successive periods of drought and floods. The arrival of about 150,000 refugees since 2013 has worsened the situation for local poor people.

“We have to act right now to save lives,” insists Rotimy Djossaya, the local chief of the American NGO CARE. The authorities warn that Niger, a deeply poor country, could face another food crisis in 2016 because of a poor harvest.


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