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article imageHunger and fear of Boko Haram stalk Lake Chad refugees

By Jean-Pierre Campagne (AFP)     Apr 21, 2016 in World

Sitting on a mat in the shade cradling a six-month baby, Falmata Marara touches her mouth, her stomach, and then her mouth and stomach again. The message couldn't be clearer, she's hungry.

A gold ring in her nose and wearing a vibrantly coloured scarf and dress, Marara, a member of the Bodoma people, five months ago fled her Lake Chad island home after an attack by Nigeria's feared Boko Haram Islamists.

Fougo, her home island, is one of 85 scattered across Lake Chad that have been emptied of people since Boko Haram's six-year campaign of terror began, said UN humanitarian affairs officer Florent Mehaule.

Some 110,000 people displaced by the violence live in makeshift camps around the immense waterway straddling Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Nigeria that supplies millions of people with water, Mehaule added.

But if safe for now, all live in fear of fresh Boko Haram terror -- and most suffer from hunger.

"I've run out of sorghum" or cereal, mumbles mother of six Marara, whose baby is feverish after a bout of diarrhoea and who had walked that day to Baga Sola from her reed hut refuge to a mobile clinic run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

- Body searches -

Chadian soldiers parade in the capital N'djamena during their homecoming from neighbouring Nige...
Chadian soldiers parade in the capital N'djamena during their homecoming from neighbouring Niger where they were fighting against Boko Haram
Brahim Adji, AFP/File

Set up not far from the invisible underwater border separating the four Lake Chad nations, the clinic deals daily with a stream of people with malaria or respiratory problems, but also reports a spike in cases linked to malnutrition.

Fear of Boko Haram runs high in Baga Sola where a triple suicide attack in October killed 41 people.

MSF is taking no risks.

Because the extremists are increasingly resorting to female suicide bombers, women seeking medical help first are body-searched in an area well away from the mobile MSF centre.

They're then submitted five by five to a second search before being allowed into the waiting room -- a carpet thrown on the ground.

Some 10 kilometres (six miles) away across parched and sandy terrain, MSF runs a tiny mental health centre to help those displaced overcome the trauma of rape, violence and flight.

- 'Acute paranoia' -

Fear of Boko Haram runs high in Baga Sola where a triple suicide attack in October killed 41 people
Fear of Boko Haram runs high in Baga Sola where a triple suicide attack in October killed 41 people
Philippe Desmazes, AFP/File

"Some people become anorexic and no longer eat, others just close up on themselves," said Charlot Serferbe Dabo, a clinical psychologist.

"Depression can be immediate or surface months later," he added.

One patient suffered from acute paranoia, convinced he was being hunted night and day by Boko Haram fighters.

The doctor said he believed he was also taking a powerful painkiller called Tramadol which is widely sold to addicts on the black market.

Nigeria-based Boko Haram has left thousands dead and 2.6 million homeless in that country alone since 2009.

Moving back and forth across Lake Chad it has brought its war to set up an Islamic state across the borders as well.

Now the four border nations as well as neighbouring Benin have banded together to rout the Islamists and cut supply lines.

Among the refugees around the lake are fishermen deprived of food and income after the authorities banned fishing in a bid to flush out and starve the Islamists.

- 'Throats slit' -

Nigeria-based Boko Haram has left thousands dead and 2.6 million homeless in that country alone sinc...
Nigeria-based Boko Haram has left thousands dead and 2.6 million homeless in that country alone since 2009
Philippe Desmazes, AFP/File

"Many have returned home to their islands, despite the threat of Boko Haram attacks," said an MSF doctor.

"They say they'd rather risk being killed on a full stomach than dying of hunger bit by bit. But recently, three of them had their throats slit on their return."

Around Baga Sola, local civilian vigilante groups keep a watchful eye on comings and goings, specially on market day.

Crowded mosques and markets are favoured targets for Boko Haram, though nowadays, with traffic stopped across Lake Chad, there's little for sale at the stalls.

There are no fresh fish, no Chad beef in Nigeria and no dried Nigerian fish in Chad.

"The security situation is a little better," said Ocha's Mehaule. "But people are still not going home which indicates there is still a risk."

More about Chad, Unrest, bokoharam, Refugees
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