ABUJA, Nigeria — From the outside, religious persecution can often seem a one-and-done affair. A bomb goes off and then calm returns, or a militant group storms a village and then retreats. Generally news reports follow the story for a day or so, and then attention shifts elsewhere.
Spending time with victims, however, it’s crystal-clear that for them, the consequences linger long after the immediate calamity has passed.
Dauda Musa, for instance, is a Catholic and father of five children from Nigeria’s northeastern Adamawa state. In 2013, he was driven from his home along with his family when Boko Haram militants attacked his village, burning local churches and leaving 34 Christians dead, including one of Musa’s brothers.
Because Boko Haram had blocked the main road exiting the area, Musa and the other villagers were forced to trek by foot into neighboring Cameroon, whose border with Nigeria is marked by a large mountain.
As Musa was making his way down the mountain in the dark, he stumbled and sustained a severe hip injury, leaving him unable to walk without pain and needing to use a cane.
Musa today is living in a small tent along with his wife and children, aged 2 to 10, at a camp for internally displaced people outside Abuja called “New Kuchingoro” along with almost 1,000 other people, most of them Christians from the country’s northern states fleeing onslaughts by Boko Haram.
In April, the International Organization for Migration estimated there are 1.5 million people forced from their homes into other regions of Nigeria today, most dislodged by Boko Haram.
Shortly after arriving at the camp a year and a half ago, Musa was informed by a doctor that he needed a hip replacement surgery estimated to cost 600,000 Nigerian Naira, about US $3,000. He couldn’t afford it and has lived with the condition ever since, watching it steadily deteriorate.
“Today one of my legs is a little longer than the other, and it’s hurting more to walk,” he said. He was a farmer and builder back home, but says his condition has left him unable to work.
Musa’s experience is common among victims of Boko Haram violence, whose suffering is aggravated by the realities of living in a country ranked by the World Health Organization as having the fourth-worst health care system in the world. In theory, 2005 legislation created a national health insurance system, but, as a professor of medicine here recently put it, “implementation has been abysmal.”
Wealthy Nigerians generally see a plane ticket as the best form of insurance. According to the president of the Nigerian Medical Association, more than US $500 million annually is lost to what’s known as “medical tourism,” meaning people going abroad for treatment.
That option isn’t available, however, to the 76 percent of Nigeria’s 183 million people living in poverty. As a result, injured and sick Nigerians are often forced to live with their conditions, which, left untreated, become steadily more serious.
The Rev. Almady Michael Gadache is a priest who coordinates a small relief effort for victims of a 2011 Christmas Day bombing by Boko Haram at St. Theresa’s Catholic Church about an hour outside Abuja. He said that each year he scrambles for more money to meet their health care needs — not because of new injuries, he said, “but because their conditions are getting worse all the time.”
Martina Mathias, also a resident of the New Kuchingoro camp, is another face of the ongoing consequences of violence.
Also a Catholic, she was separated from her husband when Boko Haram stormed into her area of Borno state in 2013. She said she lost 17 members of her extended family, and escaped with her six children only because her husband managed to reach her by phone to give her a warning.
“He called to say there were dead bodies on the road, and they couldn’t even bury them,” she said. “He told us it wasn’t safe and we needed to get out.”
She fled with their children into Cameroon, where she ended up spending three months because one of them came down with severe diarrhea. They eventually made their way to the camp in Abuja, where her children are now attending a crude primary school set up by a local pastor.
Mathias said that one of her children is currently sick, unable to wake up for more than a few minutes at a time. She suspects he has malaria, but she can’t afford even the basic cost of a diagnosis, let alone whatever the treatment would be.
“I try to give him some food, I bathe him, and I pray for him,” she said, “That’s all I can do.”
Philemon Emmanuel, a Pentecostal who serves as the informal leader of New Kuchingoro, says conditions in the camp itself can kill.
“We are suffering here, especially because we don’t have anything like a hospital,” Emmanuel said. “If somebody gets sick, we don’t have the money they charge us to get treatment.”
According to Emmanuel, at least eight people have died in the camp since it was established roughly two years ago, some from pre-existing conditions and some from diseases such as malaria, diphtheria, typhoid, and hepatitis, caused by unsafe water, open sewage, and undernourishment.
Emmanuel said dozens of women have also delivered babies in the camp, without any access to prenatal care and in unsanitary conditions.
“This is how we’re surviving here,” he said, adding that without contributions from a few nearby churches and a handful of NGOs, the victims would be entirely on their own.
Beyond the health risks, he said, the real disease inside the camp is ennui.
There’s no work, he said, except for occasional day jobs as manual laborers on construction sites. Beyond the small primary school, there’s no education for teenagers, and most residents pass their days sitting under trees — playing cards, napping, and occasionally watching soccer on a television provided by a private donor.
Back home, he said, most of the people in the camps were successful farmers.
“We made a good living,” he said. “One person could harvest 700 to 1,000 bags of beans, but we lost all those things.”
Emmanuel said almost everyone in the camp dreams of going home — “we’d leave tomorrow if we could,” he said — but for now, it’s impossible.
“If you go to our village, you won’t see a single house standing,” he said. “They destroyed it all; now it’s all flat land.”
Musa is among the lucky ones. The St. Vincent de Paul Society at the nearby Catholic parish of St. Christopher’s has raised enough money to make a deposit on his hip replacement surgery. He was scheduled for the procedure in mid-August, but the hospital he was to use was shut down by a strike and so he’s still waiting.
He said he has no doubt about why he finds himself in this situation.
“I know this is a religious war against Christians,” he said. “If they catch you, they tell you that you have to convert to be a Muslim, and if not, they’ll slaughter you.”
Despite it all, he said, he’s still committed to his Christian faith.
“I’ll die before I give up Jesus Christ,” he said, insisting that most people in the camp feel the same way.
“If not, we’d all already be Muslims,” he said. “Life would be a lot easier that way.”
From one point of view, it’s possible to say that the attacks suffered by the residents of New Kuchingoro happened in the past. In terms of the impact on their lives, however, the hardship is anything but a closed book.
“We are still suffering,” Emmanuel said. “People think the attack on us is over, but our lives are still destroyed.”