Nigerians flee government offensive in Borno

Thousands from Boko Haram’s home state now live in wretched conditions in neighbouring Niger.

We travelled by road through the harsh desert plains of Niger, to its frontier with Nigeria, to meet the thousands of refugees who had arrived from Nigeria. More than 6,000 of them had fled intense fighting in their towns and villages between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram.

The fighting started after Goodluck Jonathan, the Nigerian president, declared a state of emergency and ordered a military offensive against Boko Haram on May 14. Boko Haram, an armed radical group, has been behind the killings of thousands of civilians across Nigeria over three years of attacks in the region.

Most of the refugees we met were women and children from Borno state in Nigeria, the birth place of Boko Haram.  Borno has seen the most violence caused by the group, and it is the epicentre of the military campaign t crush the group.

Many of the refugees fled when they heard gunfire and saw Nigerian fighter jets passing overhead. They were so frightened, they fled with just the clothes they were wearing.

The refugees are experiencing severe suffering in Bosso, they told Al Jazeera. They do not have food to eat or water to drink. Locals in Bosso have done what they can to help the Nigerians who have arrived. Bosso is a small and poor town, however, with major food and security issues of its own.

There is no accommodation or shelter for people. The streets are littered with Nigerian refugees – just sitting there, looking lost, looking hopeless. One of them was Yabawa, a mother of nine. An educated civil servant back home for Abadam local government in Borno state, she arrived on Tuesday after Boko Haram launched an attack on Nigerian soldiers in the area, she said. She told us her village was deserted: everyone fled across the border.

Yabawa was lucky enough to be given shelter on the compound of one of the local leaders. That ‘shelter’, though, is just a space for her and her family on the floor, outside, under the trees. She wants to see an end to Boko Haram, and supports the military offensive, but she also says it has devastated her life.

The UN’s refugee agency says that there are more than 6,000 Nigerian refugees and more are arriving everyday. Due to the terrain in Niger, they’ve not been able to give the refugees any humanitarian assistance. The UN says it’s putting together an emergency humanitarian aid effort to help the refugees. But that could take weeks.

The Nigerian refugees, then, will continue suffering until then. They are calling on the Nigerian government to help them urgently, so they can return home.