Silent starvation in Chad's Lake Region

Oxfam media officer Maria Jose Agejas Santamaria visited Chad last month with photographer Pablo Tosco. The stories they returned with are harrowing. On this World Food Day, please pause a minute to read and share.

In one corner of the world, in the region of Lake Chad, millions of people have, for 8 years, been suffering the consequences of Boko Haram attacks and the military response. Except for notorious episodes such as the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls, the tragedy is treated with indifference by almost everyone. This is even more the case in Chad where this indifference translates into a serious lack of the funding which would enable people, such as those who have spoken to us, to escape from this dire situation. This is what the people there say.

“We used to live like lords. We could buy whatever we wanted. We used to eat nice things.” Sitting at the door of his hut, Ibrahim remembers how his former life was like paradise. He remembers when he used to fish with one of his sons. “One dealt with the nets, the other steered the canoe. Then we grilled the fish at home and it was there and then ready to sell.” The women looked after the vegetable plots and the goats. Collections of fruit and plants from the woods were additional jobs and supplemented their diet.

"Until one day we heard the name Boko Haram," he continues. Behind the name came the men who embody it. "We managed to get away safe and sound with our (nine) children, but we lost some of our relatives."

Ibrahim now goes hungry. He lives more than three hours away from the lake and his sole link with water is to carry it for people and animals in order to get a few cents with which he tries to cover his needs.

The "disease" of hunger

Hunger was precisely what carried off Mohamed when he was six years old, in a camp for displaced persons a few kilometers from where the fisherman lives. "His stomach made noises. He had diarrhea," says his father Adoum Hassane. "When we took the child to the health center, the nurse said: 'It is not a disease, it is hunger'."  The worn out and emaciated bodies of Adoum and Hadija, his wife, are alone sufficient to explain how tough the twelve months have been since they fled their home.

Haoua is a neighbor of Adoum’s. They live in a barren camp where there are no services except a well repaired by Oxfam. They came here from the same site a year and a half ago, after Boko Haram men plundered their village and killed 18 people.

“They came during Ramadan. There was hardly a moment for a drink of water when we heard the noise of weapons.”  “Tac,” she imitates, without a muscle of her face moving. Without giving it a thought, she grabbed her children, put four things on her head, and walked for a month. On the way, people in the villages she went through gave her mats to sleep on, pots and cups. 

Life was good

Haoua tells us what life was like before Boko Haram: "We had goats, donkeys, cultivated plots… Life was good."

"I had never thought that one day I would find myself in this situation," says Fatima for her part when we asked if she had ever imagined that she would be a displaced person, who would flee empty-handed from her home in search of safety. Neither is she able to explain what motivates the members of Boko Haram to attack the civilian population: "They kill their fathers, their mothers and their children. We don’t know why."

The war has ruined the lives of millions of people. We talk about 17 million people in the basin of the lake in Cameroon, Niger, Nigeria and Chad. More than 10 million people depend on humanitarian aid, because they cannot cultivate, sell, fish, or produce anything at all.

A devastating conflict

Despite living in a forgotten region, Lake Chad - in one of the poorest countries on earth - Adoum, Ibrahim, Haoua, and Fatima had economic activities that allowed them to survive, thanks to the fish in the Lake and the fertility of the islands and the land around it.

It was not a wonderful life: well before the war, all this basin was experiencing an already challenging environment, with the effect of a changing climate (and the resulting shrinking of the lake) and the lack of infrastructure and basic services. But the conflict has had an even more disastrous effect on the fragile stability of these people.

Attacks by Boko Haram and military operations have meant that they can now only dream of that lost world. A world that now, stranded as they are in the middle of nowhere, they remember as a lost paradise.

Oxfam is there

Chad is ranked 186th out of 188 countries in terms of wealth. Within its own territory, the Lake region is one of the poorest. There are only 10 doctors in the area providing health services. Illiteracy is high and the schooling rate is at 37%. Well under five out of every ten people don’t have clean drinking water. In addition, to its own conflict and developmental challenges, Chad has also to cope with refugees from its neighbors, Sudan and Central African Republic.

Oxfam works in the Daboua area in the Lake Chad region and so far we have supported more than 50,000 people with potable water or cash to cover their most basic needs. Our work also focuses on finding long-term solutions for the displaced population, and on getting them to have access to birth certificates and other documentation.

In northeast Nigeria we have helped about 350,000 people affected by the crisis in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states since May 2014. Our intention is to help up to 500,000 people in 2017.

We provide people with emergency food support and cash and vouchers so they can buy food from local markets, clean water and better sanitation, including constructing showers and toilets. We are distributing food and cooking equipment, as well as providing seeds and tools to help traders and farmers.

In Niger, we are installing water systems to make sure people have clean water to drink and distributing essential items such as cooking pots, buckets and water purifying tablets. We are providing food assistance and support to income generating activities for IDPs and refugees.

Oxfam is calling for the Chad Government to ensure that the safety, security and protection of civilians is made a more important part of its military operations. It should support communities in finding new economic activity in their current location and in returns areas.

International donors must immediately fully fund the 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan.

This entry posted by Maria Jose Agejas Santamaria, Oxfam Media Officer, on 16 October 2017, based on her trip to Chad last month.

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