Red, red and more red. In seconds, the vivid color of blood and fire splashed on paper makes my blood burn. Ahmid’s drawing seems to go down in flames, and there is nothing I can do to extinguish it.
As the 15-year-old refugee boy from Nigeria sketches his experience, I am surprised by the stroke of his pen – hasty, yet precise. The memories are still fresh and sharp: Boko Haram combatants firing at unarmed families from the back of pick-up trucks. Houses and schools burning down to ashes. Fathers being slaughtered in front of their own children.
Hundreds of spine-chilling drawings collected by UNICEF in northeast Nigeria, but also in Cameroon, Chad and Niger, reveal that children like Ahmid who were uprooted by Boko Haram violence remain haunted by the unspeakable atrocities they witnessed.
“I run away alone because some people were slashing other people’s throats as if they were rams. This is what scared me most – not the shooting,” said Ahmid while displaying the chilling drawing he made of the attacks in his hometown in Baga, northeast Nigeria. “What I lost there, I can get it back. But I am worried about my parents. I was told my family was killed. I don’t think that they all died. I think some of them may still be alive.”
So many have seen their parents and siblings killed, tortured or abducted. Others were separated from their families, when their villages came under attack. Many ran for their life, were literally hunted by Boko Haram from one place to another and walked for days in search of a safe haven. Weeks after the attacks, they start feeling safe enough to let re-surface the emotions they kept bottled up for so long.
“Some children we see in the refugee camp don’t sleep, eat or speak normally,” says Dr. Claude Ngabu, head of UNICEF office in Bagassola. “Many have seen things children of their age should never see. This is totally abnormal, but unfortunately common here. But when they start interacting with other children, when they are surrounded by community volunteers we trained and they trust, they begin to talk openly about their problems and feelings. This is the first step towards recovery.”
According to a new UNICEF estimate, about 800,000 children in four different countries have now been forced to flee their homes due to Boko Haram violence. In Dar Es Salaam near Bagassola, in Chad, as well as in other refugee camps across the region, our teams report growing numbers of children like Ahmid who arrive unaccompanied. These children are particularly at risk of abuse, exploitation and even recruitment by armed groups.
Over 60,000 displaced children affected by Boko Haram conflict have received counseling from UNICEF and its partners in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad to ease the pain and deal with the emotional distress. In a safe environment, they are involved every day in recreational programs that bring back a sense of normal life, including through sport and artistic activities.
Drawing is helping them to express feelings, both happy and despairing. Needs are immense and immediate. While walking through the refugee camp, I see several plastic tent ‘walls’ decorated with children’s sketches depicting carnage and killings.
To help recover and rebuild their lives, children are also asked to draw memories of their life before the conflict and what they miss most when far from home. With pencils and crayons, nostalgic images are brought to life — united families, playful moments with friends, healthy environments with fruits and vegetables, packed classrooms. What children cherish most about their life before Boko Haram is not a material item or a personal belonging — it’s their people.
As I listen to Ahmid, I do my best to maintain visual contact as much as I can. I want him to know I am with him, I do care. But it’s just too much. I need to close my eyes for an instant and breath before again diving deep into atrocities. Without Ahmid’s face, I am immediately focused on the tone of his voice, so deep and soothing. I can’t believe he is 15. He sounds like a man prematurely aged and wrecked by hardships and suffering.
All of a sudden, I realize that it wasn’t enough for Boko Haram to take away Ahmid’s parents and relatives; they also tried to rob him of his childhood. Like 800,000 other children who escaped and survived the conflict, Ahmid is now fighting to get it back. And it often starts with the most simple and precious gift in times of conflict — a safe place where refugee children feel comfortable to be children, a refuge where they can play and learn without fear.