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Nigeria: Orphans of the Boko Haram conflict in the urban jungle

Ⓒ AFP – Florian PLAUCHEUR – | A child watches a derelict amusement park ride on April 27, 2017 in Maiduguri, Nigeria

In the early morning, after a night spent on the pavements of Maiduguri, a bunch of kids storm an abandoned amusement park and climb on a ride whose colors have finally peeled and whitened under the burning sun.

The wooden horses may be motionless, the apocalyptic frame and their clothes tattered, the boys laugh as if they were at Disneyland, forgetting their troubles during this brief moment of carelessness.

They are among the thousands of children orphaned by the jihadist insurgency of Boko Haram, who now live in the capital of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria.

“No one takes care of them, so they come here to play, they should be at school but they do not have access to it, it’s really hard to see,” deplores AFP Salisu Ismail , 42, who works near the amusement park.

Boko Haram was born in Maiduguri. The widespread poverty, high unemployment and corruption of the government allowed this religious sect to prosper among the population before it even became a bloody jihadist movement.

All the recognized drivers of radicalization are still united and the city officials fear that Maiduguri remains a fertile ground for extremism.

Ⓒ AFP – Florian PLAUCHEUR – | Children who have become orphans with the jihadist insurgency of Boko Haram are playing in an abandoned amusement park on 27 April 2017 in Maiduguri, Nigeria

How can we bring thousands of homeless children back to school in a desperately poor area where education has never been a priority but remains the key to preventing another jihadist uprising?

“According to official figures, we have more than 52,000 orphans in the Borno,” the state governor, Kashim Shettima, told AFP. “But in reality, the orphans are probably over 100,000, half of them in Maiduguri. Without education, these young people will become monsters that will consume us all,” he said.

Boko Haram means in Hausa language “western education is a sin”. These fighters have multiplied attacks against schools and teachers and their offensive against education prevents development.

In some IDP camps, located in remote areas on the Niger / Cameroon border and where war continues to rage, there are no schools.

In Maiduguri, whose population has doubled to more than two million as a result of the influx of civilians fleeing violence, thousands of other children are falling through the cracks.

Ⓒ AFP – Florian PLAUCHEUR – | Children who have become orphans with the jihadist insurgency of Boko Haram are playing in an abandoned amusement park on 27 April 2017 in Maiduguri, Nigeria

“Many have never been to school,” said Samuel Manyok, a child protection specialist at UNICEF, saying the number of young people who have dropped out of school reaches “those of Somalia and South Sudan combined”.

– Submerged schools –

Sitting on a concrete table in the middle of the amusement park, the young Aisha (first name changed), 15 years, confides that she has no news of her family since the irruption of Boko Haram in his village, In 2015.

Her parents refused to marry a group fighter, she says. Boko Haram killed his father “on the spot” and threw his mother into a makeshift cell, filled with urine and excrement, until she cracked and finally let her daughter go with them.

Aisha spent the last days of her childhood in the forest of Sambisa, the last stronghold of Boko Haram. “It has entered into me,” she confesses modestly recalling the repeated rapes that she was the victim of her abductor.

From her teenage memories, Aisha tells how the fighters were fastening explosive belts on her comrades, promising them paradise and, above all, 50,000 naira (145 euros) for their families.

Last December, when the Nigerian army regained control of the Sambisa forest, the soldiers released Aisha and took her safely to Maiduguri. She now lives alone in an IDP camp, where she does not go to school.

What would she like to do later? She never thought about it. “I like the clothes,” she finally blew out.

The schools in Maiduguri have been overwhelmed by the tens of thousands of displaced people from the conflict. They reopened last September, but their capacity is not enough to accommodate all the children of the city.

The governor aims to build “20 new schools” across Borno and build an orphanage of 8,000 places.

But this will depend, above all, on the generosity of the donors, mobilized by the serious food crisis in the region, and by the federal government, whose projects are often lost in a slow and corrupt administration.

Yet, if this problem is not urgently resolved, it is likely that northeastern Nigeria will never be able to stop the spiral of violence.

“These children need a second chance,” says Mayok of UNICEF. “It’s a time bomb”.

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