One afternoon in early September, John Gwanma, a man in his early sixties banters with his friends in front of an informal refugee camp for Christians in Nigeria’s war-torn northeast region.
Clothed in his sartorial light brown caftan, a outfit common in Northern Nigeria, Gwanma is sitting under a local neem tree that serves as a reprieve from the scorching sun. Behind the gated entrance lays a sprawling labyrinth of makeshift tents built with tarpaulin and emblazoned with UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency logo. This refugee camp is home to about 1,000 Christians, mostly survivors of the Boko Haram insurgency that started in 2009.
Boko Haram, loosely translated to “Western education is forbidden,” is a extremist group who started killing innocent citizens and destroying property in 2009 with an intention of establishing an Islamic caliphate that is free of Western influence in northeast Nigeria.
In 2014, in cahoots with the Islamic State (ISIS), Boko Harm sparked global outrage when they kidnapped 276 school girls from the primarily Christian town of Chibok in northeast Nigeria, igniting the #BringBackOurGirls campaign.
Nigeria has a population of about 180 million — 49 percent Christian in the southern region and 48 percent Muslim in the northern region, according to Pew Research Center.
In northern Nigeria, the epicenter of insurgency and ethno-religious violence, Christians are the minority and have experienced widespread persecution from terrorists who share the extremist view of creating an Islamic state across northern Nigeria.
Since the insurgents’ debut attack in 2009, coordinated attacks have been launched against Christians in the region.
Despite the unabated crisis, Gwanma and his friends are deeply woven in camaraderie. Like other Christians refugees in the camp, Gwanma and his friends escaped Boko Haram attacks by sheer luck in Gwoza, Borno State — his home town and home to a minority Christian community in northeast Nigeria.
A dark day in Gwoza
In the summer of 2014, Boko Haram insurgents attacked Gwoza, home to the most populated Christian settlements in northeast Nigeria. The town fell to the hands of insurgents one fateful evening while Gwanma was outside listening to local news on his transistor radio.
“On that evening, we saw a convoy looking like Nigerian military convoy. The occupants of the fully armed vehicles wore the uniform of the Nigerian army,” Gwanma told me. “When we saw them, we became happy because we thought the government has finally heard our plight and has decided to send us a military backup but the worst happened when they started shooting at us."
On that day, churches in Gwoza were razed and many people were killed.
According to Gwanma, people scamping for safety, running away from the rain of bullets that pervaded the town. Gwanma lost his son, some of his relatives, and his home during this massacre.
Gwanma escaped into the rocky hideouts in Gwoza where many residents sought refuge. But the insurgents, dauntless in their search for fugitives, scoured through the rocky hideouts and dragged out Christians, asking them to either renounce their faith and live or accept it and be killed.
“From where I was hiding, I saw many Christians slaughtered in my presence,” Gwanma said. “The insurgents would ask them to renounce their faith, and those who refused were slaughtered immediately,” he adds.
Trapped alone in his rocky hideout, Gwanma avoided the insurgents for 21 days, running from one rocky hideout to another, seeking ways to escape to the neighboring state of Adamawa.
After 30 days in his hideout, Gwanma finally escaped. With a few others escaping the chaos, he trekked for three days through the forests to Adamawa. He was eventually rescued and given treatment by the International Red Cross who transferred him to Maiduguri — the capital of Borno state.
Huge Humanitarian Crisis
In 2014, during the peak of the insurgency attack, Boko Haram, with its legion of foot soldiers, captured many towns and communities in northeast Nigeria and the neighboring Cameroon. Survivors such as Gwanma who escaped thronged Maiduguri, the largest city in the northeast region and home to a handful of humanitarian and international aid organizations such as UNICEF, UNHCR, and the International Red Cross. But the influx of survivors packed into Maiduguri created a humanitarian crisis that affected many refugees —especially Christians who were not allowed to stay in formal government camps because of their minority status. These refugee camps are mostly crowded and controlled by the majority-Muslim refugees and workers.
“I know my Muslim people are capable of doing this,” Musa Muhammed, an administrator in of the formal IDP camps said. “If they know you’re a Christian they won’t even give you space [to build tent], much less food.”
But Mustapha Abdulkareem, a Muslim who often visits the IDPs camp in Dalori, Maiduguri, dismissed these claims as untrue. He says IDPs camps are apportioned to survivors based on the towns they are originated from across Borno. Most IDPs are from predominant Islamic towns, hence the dominance of Muslims in the camp.
“Christians who complained about discrimination usually feel they are in the minority so they leave for predominantly Christian camps where they can worship God, eat, and live freely,” AbdulKareem said.
Yet, due to this alleged discrimination of Christians in formal internal displaced persons (IDP) camps, the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization containing numerous Christian denominations in Nigeria, has created an inter-denominational camp where Christians can stay.
Gwanma was the first one to arrive at this camp after he was transferred to Maiduguri.
Living conditions in these camps are dire. Hundreds of Christian refugees are currently teetering on the brink of collapse with no assistance from the Nigerian government.
“When we arrived here, there was no intervention from the government. It was the local churches in Nigeria and humanitarian organizations and some voluntary individuals that that were feeding us,” Gwanma said.
Although the United Nations World Food Program (WFP), different Nigerian churches, and contributions from individuals have been helping the refugees, their effort is like a drop into an ocean.
“The food they give us is insufficient; some families are 10. Some are 12. And we also take in new arrivals nearly every day from so many other states troubled by the conflicts. And there is no accommodation to take them in,” Gwanma said.
The situation is a bit better in refugee camps for Catholics with about 500 families living in a large building built for the Maiduguri diocese Catholic secretariat but given to the refugees. Since the camp was opened in 2015, the church has spent over 150 million naira ($413,223) on the refugee crisis. Most of the money came from the church coffers and contributions from international catholic agencies such as the German-based Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need who provided a grant of $75,000 in 2017 for 5,000 widows and 15,000 orphans under the care of the diocese. But such payments are earmarked for women and children—complete families are excluded from the grant.
Lawrence Adam, a 40-year-old father of six, was excluded. A professional fisherman in one of the biggest fishing towns in north east Nigeria called Baga, the insurgency affected his livelihood after Boko Haram attacked him in 2014. In the catholic refugee camp, Adam told me he earned $13 a day as a fisherman before the insurgents captured his town in 2014.
“Then business was good and I took care of my family without stress, Adam remembers, “but with nowhere to fish I have turned to odd job as a laborer in a construction site not far from the camp to support my family,” he said.
With reports of more violence, including deploying young girls as suicide bombers that have killed thousands, Christians both in the refugee camps and in churches across Maiduguri aren’t taking security lightly.
Churches in Maiduguri have deployed measures to guarantee the security of Christians.
Across Christian refugee camps, local Pentecostal churches raised and trained vigilantes equipped with handheld flashlights, Dane guns, sling shots, and cutlasses. Registered under the state security agency, the vigilante groups stay awake at night, securing the Christian refugee camps.
To stave off any form of hard feelings against Muslims, Gwanma told me they organize weekly faith programs and Bible study with an emphasis on forgiveness and peace across the Christian refugee camps in Maiduguri.
“We organize dialogue across all the Christian IDP camps. We tell them to forgive Boko Haram using Christ as a model,” Gwanma said, shifting to the edge of his plastic chair to emphasize his point.
“He [Jesus Christ] did nothing wrong but he was crucified, yet he forgave the oppressors and killers. All we have lost must be forgotten. And all offenders [Boko Haram] must be set free in forgiveness,” he adds.
At the end of every month, the elders of refugee camp, led by Gwanma, organize a church service dedicated to healing the hearts of the brethren from grievances against the insurgents. The elders, mostly men and women who were previously pastors of churches lost to the insurgency, preach peace and forgiveness with the scriptures.
“Our effort is paying off," Gwanma said. “Most of the Christians have moved on. Now we are focused on the future and restarting their lives.”