Assaga is an unlikely location for a refugee-cum-displaced people’s settlement. Niger’s main east-west highway runs through the heart of a sweeping expanse of desert that is the sprawling camp. Flimsy straw huts, some stitched together with plastic sheeting, dot the arid, dusty landscape on either side of the major road.
These makeshift dwellings are home to some of the 160,000 displaced people within Niger’s southeastern Diffa region, as well as 80,000 Nigerians who’ve sought refuge from across the nearby border. All were fleeing Boko Haram attacks that destroyed their homes and villages.
The world has learned much about how Boko Haram has terrorized northeastern Nigeria for the past seven years. Far less is heard about its vast, landlocked Sahara desert neighbor, Niger, which has also been a target of extremist violence.
Troops from Niger are part of a multinational regional force including Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon that have been battling the Boko Haram insurgency that has spilled dramatically over Nigeria’s borders into these neighboring countries. An estimated almost 3 million people have been displaced across what’s known as the Lake Chad Basin.
A concerted joint military offensive last year drove Boko Haram into its remote stronghold in Nigeria’s northeast. This forced the fighters from the Islamic State-allied terror network, whose stated aim is to establish a caliphate, to change tactics, resorting to suicide bomb attacks and stepping up raids in northeast Nigeria and across the borders, including Diffa.
Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world and is struggling to feed its own uprooted people as well as refugees from Nigeria.
Fifty-year-old Nigerian headmaster, Kyari Bukar, his wife and six children are one such family. They’ve been at the camp for almost a year. While Bukar thanks his host country, Niger, he says security remains an issue for many traumatized men, women and children at Assaga camp — and there are other problems.
“People living here, they are hungry. We are not getting enough food,” says Bukar. “People just suffer. We are appealing to the whole world, to bring assistance to these people.”
The Boko Haram conflict is just one of the global crises that has been under the spotlight at the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, organized by the United Nations, in Istanbul this week. Delegates have been discussing ways to resolve them.
Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, says his nation is facing a “catastrophic humanitarian situation” – trying to crush Boko Haram from across the border with Nigeria and tackle food scarcity at home. Add to that almost a quarter of a million increasingly desperate Nigerian refugees and displaced Nigerians in the southeast corner of the country, the Diffa region.
Almost every refugee and displaced person NPR spoke to at Assaga camp expressed the same concern – the lack of food. With the impending Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan and the farming lean season almost upon them, their most pressing anxiety is the dearth of relief food aid reaching the camp.
Abdou Kaza, the governor of the Diffa region — where the Assaga camp is located — says Niger’s government has a plan “that is going to be executed.” But Kaza has a message for camp residents: “They say they don’t have enough to eat. This is not especially a situation that affects only the region of Diffa and only the refugees and displaced persons.”
The governor says the situation is tough across Niger, but that the government is delivering food “as far as possible according to the means of the country. And the little we have for the moment won’t be enough for all of them,” says Kaza. “We have just what we have. And also, our partners are helping us.”
The U.N. World Food Program says almost half a million people need food aid in Diffa, including those at the camp.
Diffa’s governor was visiting Assaga last week with the United Nations emergency relief coordinator, Stephen O’Brien, who’s also the U.N.’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs. O’Brien was hoping to raise much-needed money at the World Humanitarian Summit in Turkey to counter a sizable funding shortfall and “to help save lives and to protect people.”
He said the situation in Diffa represented a mixed humanitarian challenge. “What is clear is across Niger, there are 2 million [people] who are food-insecure. We are very much in the lean season, it’s very tough times,” says O’Brien. “It’s always a challenge, with an endemic problem in this area of very high population growth, poverty, resource scarcity, increased climate effect through desertification. These have real effects on the real lives of people.”
The U.N. humanitarian chief said this could lead to more displaced people and pledged to do more. “In this part of Niger, in the Sahel, really close to the border with Nigeria, close to where so much of the terrible Boko Haram activity has been taking place, we have a particular challenge. We are standing here in the searing heat, which is a big challenge for the people who have these very rudimentary shelters, be they sticks and plastic sheeting, and it’s absolutely crucial that we focus on their needs.”
O’Brien told camp residents, like the Nigerian teacher Bukar, he was taking their stories to Istanbul.
Away from the visiting dignitaries, the Nigerian refugee headmaster breaks down when asked a simple question about his hopes and his message. The eyes of Bukar, who had stoically recounted his family’s ordeal at the hands of Boko Haram, suddenly brim with tears.
Choking back quiet sobs, and shaking with emotion, Bukar makes an appeal. “Boko Haram, they are still many. We can’t go back. We are begging — help us!” he sobs. “We are very worried.”
Bukar says they don’t know when they’ll be able to return home — “but not until things are right, the situation is normal and there are no problems left.”
There are many anxious nods of agreement from other Assaga camp residents listening to Bukar speak. “We can’t go back home to Nigeria until it’s completely safe,” he says. “And we pray Allah will bring peace.”
Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.