Memories of Boko Haram’s murderous spree in his Nigerian hometown haunt Tom Gowon, 9, as he sits on a patch of grass at a refugee camp, sipping steaming porridge from a plastic mug.
“I was lucky because I was not killed,” said Gowon, recalling the assault on Baga, Nigeria, in early January. “But they shot and killed my father. My mother was kidnapped by the militants.”
Children such as Gowon bear the brunt of Boko Haram’s rampage since its fighters kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls last year and conquered enough territory to declare a caliphate that covers one-fifth of Nigeria.
Where the militants have met resistance, they’ve torched villages and left piles of corpses in their wake.
“There are several camps around here housing many children who have lost their parents in attacks,” said Guy Nanhousngue, a Chadian relief worker who said children make up about half of the Nigerians coming to the Baga Sola refugee camp on the shores of Lake Chad, which separates the two countries. “We’re registering more than 50 children every day.”
In recent weeks, a multinational force involving troops from Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria has escalated the fight against Boko Haram, even retaking some towns from the militants, who declared allegiance to the Islamic State group over the weekend.
The chaos has displaced more than 1 million Nigerians, creating a wave of refugees that includes 157,000 people who have fled to neighboring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. About 17,000 people are in Chad, according to the United Nations. The vast majority of the refugees are women and children.
More people would seek refuge at the camp if families weren’t trying to navigate 40-mile-wide Lake Chad. “Many of them are dying en route trying to cross,” Nanhousngue said.
Refugees who try to circumvent the lake often meet the same fate, said Seid Abdullaye, a Chadian official who oversees the Baga Sola camp. The walk through deserts and wetlands at the edge of the lake can take days or even weeks.
Those lucky enough to reach their destination can breathe a sigh of relief.
“Once they reach the camp, their safety is guaranteed,” Abdullaye said. “We are protected here with Chadian military, and we’re not worried about any kind of attacks.”
But their future is increasingly uncertain: The camps in Chad are bursting at the seams. Shelter, food, medicine and other supplies such as mosquito nets and cooking equipment are running low, Abdullaye said.
Traumatized refugees such as young Gowon have settled into despair. Since Chadian officials moved him from a detention center for orphan children to the refugee camp, Gowon has been sniffing solvent to take the edge off his chilly, nightmare-filled dreams.
He’s reluctantly slipping into an addiction. “I don’t like the solvent because it makes my chest hurt,” he said. “I have been sick since I came to the camp.”
The solvent is his only diversion from an otherwise bleak life. If Gowon can’t secure space in a tent at night, he sometimes sleeps outside on the grass, huddled with other orphan children under cardboard blankets, he said.
Other lonely orphans roam the streets of the camp. Many witnessed Boko Haram militants massacring hundreds of people when the extremist group seized a Nigerian military base in Baga as well as several other towns and villages in the region in January.
“I don’t think I have a bright future in my country,” said Ali Hasana, 12, who waited in line for food. “I have no education. I have no parents. This is because there’s no peace in my country.”
Hasana witnessed Boko Haram fighters murder his parents in a Baga shooting spree in which militants seemed intent to kill everyone on sight. He and five other boys escaped the carnage and made their way to Chad.
“There were dead bodies all over the streets,” he said, recalling Baga. “I witnessed Red Cross officials loading corpses in polythene bags onto trucks after the massacre.”
Hasana’s friend Rick Lami wonders whether his mother and father escaped death in Baga.
“I was separated from my family members when the militants attacked us,” he said. “We ran for our lives, and we’ve never met again. I don’t know if they are dead or alive, as they are not here at the displaced-people site with us.”
Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, who seeks re-election March 28, vowed to launch a counteroffensive to recapture territories under Boko Haram’s control. Last month, he delayed the election by six weeks, ostensibly out of security concerns.
But many Nigerians suspect he moved the vote because he faces a tough race from challenger Muhammadu Buhari, a former general who ruled Nigeria as a dictator in the 1980s. Buhari has been highly critical of Jonathan’s failures against the Islamic militants.
Nigerian politics mean nothing to Gowon. The child is shellshocked, his life changed forever.
“I don’t know where my future lies,” he said. “I wish I could also have died during the attack.”