Children traumatized, families broken -- life inside Maiduguri

They arrived in the middle of the night from the nearby town of Bama, more than a thousand people, mainly children and the elderly. They had been transported on trucks, under heavy military escort, for fear of attack.

The elderly were so fragile they had to be carried off and set down to rest under the trees. The children were in rags, most of them barefoot. They had not eaten for days. We gave them bread, sardines, nuts and water.

I walked up to an old man, maybe around 80 years old, wearing a traditional white babanriga gown. He looked so fragile. He was trying to hold himself steady and at the same time lift the water can.

He looked me in the eye and whispered "Alangubro, Alangubro, Askergna" It means something like "The highest form of respect to you, for your great kindness." There was just pure relief in his eyes. It is times like that when you know you are making a difference.

He, and the others, joined the thousands of people already crammed into community halls, schools, mosques, churches, municipal buildings and the homes of host families; anywhere they can find. And they are the lucky ones.

Ten thousand people are sleeping under the stars, with no shelter at all. This town, Maiduguri, in north east Nigeria, has become a sanctuary, perhaps for as many as a million people.

The government authorities have been constrained in what they can do simply by the sheer numbers of people involved.

Most of the children I talk to are so traumatized that when we just mention their parents or relatives, they break down and cry. If they reply, you get one of two answers: their parents were killed, or they got lost during the escape. Some have witnessed the most brutal of murders. One can only imagine what impact that will have on their tender minds.

There is a faraway look on the faces of most of the elders. The events witnessed during the period they were in Bama, having living in constant fear with little to eat and drink, has left them empty and taken away any resolve to better themselves. They look skinny, hungry and frightened. They live by the day.

And they need everything. Shelter, food, water, clothes, healthcare, medicine, schooling. In some ways, we are the forgotten town. No one seems to realize the sheer scale of the problem. For many months we, at the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), were the only international humanitarian workers on the ground.

We are doing our best to cater for their needs. We are delivering food and water. We are constructing shelters and latrines. We provide medical care. We work closely with our colleagues from the Nigerian Red Cross.

A couple of days ago, I went to inspect the water supply in one of the camps and met a sight that will linger in my mind for a long time. The children who had arrived in the camp just a few hours earlier were now fetching the water with buckets from the truck. They were running around, playing with the water, laughing and splashing each other.

You could feel that they were so elated, as if transported to a happier place and time. At that particular moment they had forgotten all they had gone through.

Once booming trade routes into neighboring countries are blocked or have become death traps. Economic activity has become crippled, adding greater pressures on the communities. Thousands have fled to neighboring Cameroon and Chad and Niger, adding to the burden in those countries.

Now, the arrival of the rainy season will bring new challenges and the threat of disease. We need to move fast to improve the living and sanitary conditions.

Bizarrely enough, people do have raised expectations following the recent, peaceful general election. But while Maiduguri has remained relatively calm in recent days, the fear of suicide bombings persists. Sounds and information of attacks in nearby villages continues to serve as a harsh reminder that this conflict is still very much alive.

The consequences of this conflict have had a devastating effect on many communities and left deep emotional scars. Buildings, livelihoods and families have been destroyed. The dignity of the affected has been stripped.

We all have a collective role to play in the healing process of these people. We need to re-double our efforts to bring a lasting solution to the conflict. So that the convoys of trucks, laden with children and the elderly, can be a thing of the past.

Ahmed Hersi heads the ICRC's office in Maiduguri, north east Nigeria. Born and raised in Somalia, Ahmed now holds Canadian citizenship. He joined the ICRC in 1999 and has run humanitarian air operations for the organization in different conflict zones around the world. The views expressed are those of the author's alone.

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