The power of love knows no boundaries, whether in times of peace or conflict, as demonstrated by couples who found their spouses in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in Nigeria, ARUKAINO UMUKORO writes.
The last thing 20-year-old Fatima Isa was hoping to find in an Internally Displaced Persons camp was love. Last year, the extremist group, Boko Haram, had launched an attack on Isa’s village in Borno State, forcing her and tens of other villagers to flee into the mountains. But when Cupid’s arrow sought her at the IDP camp in Malkohi, in the heart of Yola, Adamawa State capital, there was no place to hide.
One Friday this year, Isa met 25-year-old Ibrahim Musa, a volunteer security guard at the camp, just after the customary Muslim Friday prayers. For Musa, it was love at first sight.
He told SUNDAY PUNCH, “I’m a volunteer at the IDP camp here. I help the military to open the gate and take note of people who come in. On one of those days, I saw Fatima for the first time and I felt excitement because she was beautiful to look at. So, I approached her and I told her my feelings.
“I told her I wanted to marry her. I said I was not playing around because I had fallen in love with her. She then asked why I was interested in her. I said that was how God destined it. She said since I was interested in her, I should ask my family members within the camp to approach her family and ask for her hand formally.”
Both Isa and Musa are from Gwoza. Gwoza is a rocky border town in Borno which is famous, within security circles, for hosting the elite police academy where mobile policemen are trained. But since the Boko Haram crises began, it has suffered several attacks from the violent sect.
It was during one of such attacks that Isa’s first marriage ended abruptly. During the attack, she fled to the mountains in terror. Her husband of two years, Adamu, was not so lucky. He was killed by the insurgents. So for Isa, love and marriage held painful memories.
But she soon caved in under Musa’s persistent overtures, put her past aside and decided to love again. According to her, Musa’s concern for her emotional welfare was crucial to her decision to marry him.
She said, “I told him about my late husband and how he was killed by Boko Haram. He was there to comfort me. We both shared our stories of how we managed to escape from Gwoza. Our stories brought us closer.
“I was attracted to him because I saw that he can be a responsible man. I also like his faith and he showed that he can handle responsibility,” a smiling Isa told our correspondent one afternoon at the IDP camp.
Since their marriage two months ago, which was conducted by an Islamic teacher at the camp, the couple say life has taken a better turn.
“For now, he does not have the money to rent an apartment outside the camp; that is why we are staying here together. But some day, I would like to return to Gwoza. I’m looking forward to raising a home with him outside the camp. The number of children we would have depends on God,” she said, adding playfully that she felt a bit jealous when he looked at other women in the camp.
Musa laughed it off, saying, “Although I had seen other women here at the IDP camp before I took interest in her, from the first day I saw her, I knew she was the one I would marry. For me, she was the most beautiful and pleasing among them. Nothing has changed. It is God’s will. I hope we can spend more time together in the future as husband and wife.”
Isa said she wanted to learn a vocation like knitting, while Musa said he desired to go back to farming after they return to their communities.
Hope, love in a gloomy place
As our correspondent walked through the camp speaking to officials, social workers, clerics and displaced persons, Cupid’s presence was unmistakable, despite the pervasive air of despondence in the place. An official at the camp said there have been about five official weddings at the camp in the last one year.
Wamilendu Solomon, 25, and Deborah James are one of such young couples. Solomon fled his village in Michika Local Government Area, Adamawa, last year, in the dead of the night, chased by a hail of bullets fired by a horde of Boko Haram fighters. The 25-year-old said he survived simply by a stroke of fate.
“I ran from our village to another village in Borno State, where I lived for several weeks. Later, they also attacked the village. If not for the grace of God, I would have been dead long ago. Boko Haram killed many people in my village; but it was God who saved me. I am lucky to have survived those attacks,” he told our correspondent.
His elder brother and some of his friends were not lucky. They were killed during the attacks. Solomon said their deaths deeply affected him, so much that he wanted to give up on living. However, in the midst of deaths and personal loss, while fleeing to Yola, the Adamawa State capital, Solomon said he found a gift that changed his life — love.
“Deborah was also trying to escape the Boko Haram onslaught on Michika. I’ve always liked her since we were in Michika. But it was when we were escaping that I knew that I wanted us to be together always,” Solomon recollected.
On her part, Deborah said she owed Solomon a debt of gratitude, adding that he was a source of strength as things got tough as they fled from danger. She said, “It was when we were running together (that their relationship started). His constant words of encouragement helped me not to give up. One of those days, he told me to keep running and not look back; he said we should stay together.”
But they could not stay together for too long. There was yet another attack and in the midst of the crisis, they lost contact. Solomon found his way to an Internally Displaced Persons camp in Yola, the Adamawa State capital. He had lost Deborah. But he held on hoping that they would meet again.
But like in the 1992 Hollywood epic drama, The Last of the Mohicans, set in 1757 during the French and Indian war, where one of the characters said to his lover, “I will find you, no matter how long it will take, no matter how far,” Solomon never gave up hope of finding the love of his life. “I was determined not to lose her. So, I went in search of her,” he said.
He got his wish five months later, via a phone call from Deborah’s parents, informing him of their daughter’s safety, and giving him the address of the place she was staying with her aunt. “They had my telephone number before the attack but they could not reach me immediately because there was no network connection then,” he said.
With a smile playing on her lips, Deborah recalled, “When I heard he was also in Yola, I was so happy. When I finally saw him, I was happy. I told him I was not going to stay with my aunt anymore, that I would go back to the IDP camp with him; I did not want anything to separate us again, no matter what, I wanted to be by his side.”
The reunion was sweet. Solomon said he knew he did not want to wait a day longer to marry her. He said, “Life was harder without her. I missed her so much.”
At the IDP camp on January 17, last year, the love-struck couple were joined as husband and wife by a reverend father. They now have a beautiful eight-month-old daughter named Susanna and Inigiju, which in their local language means, “She belongs to God.”
“I suffered a lot during the crisis, and I would have been long dead, if not for God’s grace. That is why I gave my daughter that name,” Deborah explained happily.
Like the Solomons, gloom brought 35-year-old Baba Gana Bukar and 20-year-old Amina Abba together.
During the insurgents’ attack on his village, Banki, in Bama Local Government Area, Bukar said he and many others luckily escaped to Cameroon. After spending several months in Cameroon, Bukar and others were rescued and brought by the Nigerian military to the IDP camp in Yola.
Abba, like Bukar, is also from Bama. But the couple never knew each other until they met at the IDP camp, Yola. Then love happened.
“I felt inside my heart that I was in love with him too, but as a woman, I could not tell him directly. So, when he came to me to tell me how he felt about me, I was happy,” Abba said. As she spoke, she kept looking at Musa, before breaking the narrative at a point to throw her right arm over her husband’s shoulder.
“I was shy to tell her how I felt on the first day, but I became bold a few days later. I told her I love you directly, and went to look for her people at the camp,” Bukar said.
Musa and Abba got married in March, in the presence of an Islamic scholar, elated family members, friends and officials at the camp.
There are tens of IDP camps scattered across 13 states, including the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, in northern Nigeria.
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a non-governmental humanitarian organisation, that is part of the Norwegian Refugee Council, estimates that, as of December 31, 2015, there were about over two million (2,152,000) IDPs from 207 Local Government Areas in Nigeria.
The IDMC figures showed that Borno, with 1,434,149, has the highest number of IDPs, followed by Adamawa (136,010), Yobe (131,203), Benue (85,393), Plateau (77,317), Bauchi (70,078), Zamfara (44,929), Taraba (50,227), Nasarawa (37,553), Kaduna (36,976), Gombe (25,332), and Kano (9,331).
The report also noted that of the total figure of IDPs, 85 per cent of them were displaced as a result of Boko Haram insurgency attacks, down from 95.3 per cent in August, 2015. Communal clashes and natural disasters were the other factors.
A previous report by the IDMC stated that Nigeria has the third highest number of IDPs in the world, behind Syria with 6.5 million IDPs, and Colombia with 5.7 million IDPs.
An official of the National Emergency Management Agency in one of the IDP camps in Yola, Mr. Ibrahim Sumaila, told our correspondent that a major challenge for married couples was a place to formally conjugate their union.
Sumaila said, “For those who are bold enough to approach us, we find a private separate place for them. The camp setting usually separates men and women. The men usually come to us through the imam, one of the Muslim leaders or the chairman and we would give them about two weeks and some form of privacy in that location to spend enough time with their wives. After the two weeks, the woman and the man move back to their separate locations. But majority of them don’t come to us.”
A health worker in one of the IDP camps in Yola, who did not want to be named, said some of the challenges married couples face in the camps are the lack of health care facilities for new-borns and pregnant women.
She said, “They need so many things. Most pregnant women put to bed and do not have clothes for their babies; so many are unhealthy. Also, sometimes when cases like candida is not treated, the man keeps re-infecting the woman, and we don’t have enough facilities to handle such cases. You can’t blame someone for falling in love and getting pregnant because he or she is in an IDP camp.”
Sumaila said that about 10 weddings were conducted in the camp he oversees in the last one year. Most of the weddings are usually conducted in the presence of a Muslim or Christian cleric.
His views were echoed by a senior disaster risk reduction officer, in another IDP camp in Yola, Mr. Joe Odo. Odo who is also a NEMA official said, “We have recorded about 10 to 15 weddings since December 2015. We are regularly called upon to settle domestic issues between the couples and advise them. Also, we have empowerment and skill acquisition programmes which cater for about 90-95 per cent of women, so that they can be independent, even without the support of a man.”
He said the major challenge for women in the IDP camps was stigmatisation. “A lot of these women especially are looked down upon by society, because they feel they have been violated by the insurgents. So, when they find love in the camp, it acts like a cleanser and helps them to deal with the pain of their past,” he said.
Odo further said that the divorce rates among the couples were low mainly because they don’t face the challenges normal couples encounter. He said, “We provide for most of their basic needs, just like for everyone else in the camp. I’m sure if we were not providing for them, issues might occur that are common with normal couples.”
Sumaila added, “The divorce rate is low, but there have been one or two cases, but more among couples who got married before coming to the IDP camp.”
‘Boko Haram brought us together’
A consultant psychiatrist, Dr. Nneka Nnaogu, said the blossoming of love among IDP couples were proof of one of the three sections under Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which includes love needs, such as intimate relationships and friends.
“We are all humans with similar needs. No matter one’s occupation or circumstance or condition, everyone desires to love and be loved. Even being in an IDP camp does not stop people from loving or being loved, despite their prevailing situation,” Nnaogu told our correspondent.
Another consultant psychiatrist, Dr. Peter Ogunnubi, noted that it is an adaptive nature of human beings to want to surmount any problem despite the prevailing circumstances.
Ogunnubi further said this adaptive coping mechanism creates a field for love to grow, even in times of adversities and conflict.
“Love is like a defensive mechanism, a way of making us see life at the end of the dark tunnel,” Ogunnubi told SUNDAY PUNCH.
Despite the trauma of being first-hand witnesses to insurgency in the North-East of Nigeria, the love stories of couples at the various IDP camps in the country, seem to give credence to what the psychiatrists said.
For 27-year-old Faisal Musa, from Madagali, another town in Adamawa, which was recently liberated by the Nigerian military, he is overjoyed and contented with having a woman as the love of his life.
He said it was fate that brought his wife, 24-year-old Fatima, to his way in the IDP camp in Yola. They had both escaped the killing fields that was Bama and Madagali at the peak of the insurgency in 2015, and brought to Yola by the military.
Unknown to him, Fatima, the woman that would eventually become his wife, had experienced an horrific tragedy prior to their meeting at the IDP camp. She had witnessed the killing of her first husband by extremists when they attacked her village in Gwoza, Borno State. They were married for five years.
But Musa was drawn to her from the first week, he told SUNDAY PUNCH. That knowledge of her past, he noted, drew him even closer to her, because of the way she carried herself. “I was even more attracted to her because of her courage, beauty and simplicity,” he told our correspondent.
Fatima said Musa had been able to fill the void left by the death of her former husband. She said she appreciated his concern for her welfare. More so, he did not act like he was bothered that she already had four children from her previous marriage, she said.
“I also felt he could protect me, but only God is the ultimate protector,” she stated.
A few months after their first meeting last year, the couple got married. Fatima said she would like to return to her village in Gwoza when it is safe to go back, but noted that she would go wherever her husband, Musa, goes.
“Even if I have to go back to Gwoza, I would stay there or anywhere, as long as he is with me,” she told our correspondent. The couple have a baby together, Aisha, who was delivered in the camp. The baby has even brought more joy to their lives, and made them closer than before, Fatima noted.
“It was not easy for me at the beginning when I came here (to the IDP camp). But now, I am happy, very happy,” Fatima said.
Similarly, 36-year-old Ahmadu Garba and Amina, both from Gwoza were bonded by tragedy, however in different circumstances.
While Garba’s sister was killed by Boko Haram when they attacked Gwoza, Amina lost her husband after he decided to join the extremist group, a few years into their marriage.
“I had to escape and run away from him, when he said he wanted to join Boko Haram. When I got to the IDP camp, I reported him to security agents. I dont know where he is now,” said Amina.
Garba noted he was happy she made that decision because he would not have found her at the IDP camp.
“I am happy I decided to marry her here,” he said.
Hadiza Umar, 22, was one of the girls that rescued by the military from Boko Haram captivity in Sambisa forest. The insurgents had attacked her village in Gwoza and killed many, including her uncle and seven of his children. Her younger sister, who was also captured is still missing, she said.
She claimed she met some of the abducted Chibok girls in Gwoza, when the extremists moved them from Sambisa, while trying to escape the assaults from the army.
She said, “When we were in Sambisa, we did not see the Chibok girls, but we met them in Gwoza, they were the ones teaching us. I remember the name of one, Maryam Mohammed. There were different classes, and Maryam was the one teaching us. We spent four days in the bush before the military rescued us.”
Umar’s present state is still blurred by the memory of her recent past. But the love she has found in the IDP camp has helped her move on with life, she told SUNDAY PUNCH. At the time our correspondent visited, her husband was not available for comments. But she expressed joy in finding him in the camp.