In a makeshift hut sheltered from a stinging desert wind, Adama Issaika holds her infant daughter close. Three months ago, she stood helpless as gunmen from the Islamist group Boko Haram lined up her husband and relatives against a mosque and shot them dead.
“My littlest boy, Alirou, reached out and touched his father on the ground,” she recalled.
One of thousands of Nigerians who piled into crude canoes to escape across Lake Chad to neighboring Chad, Issaika is caught in West Africa’s vice of anguish.
Destitute in the best of times, Chad has been inundated by Nigerians escaping Boko Haram as well as economically strangled by the results of the group’s actions. The United Nations estimates that at least 500,000 people face severe malnutrition because of reduced trade with Nigeria.
Chad’s military, alongside those of neighboring Niger and Cameroon, has joined Nigeria -- with French help -- in a costly regional offensive against Boko Haram. The group, aligned with the Islamic State, wants to establish a caliphate in Nigeria. According to the Nigerian government, it has killed at least 13,000 people there.
Some 20,000 Nigerians have fled across the water to Chad, while 11,000 Chadians who had been living in northeastern Nigeria have returned along the ancient trade route that has become a restricted military zone.
That restriction has halted centuries of traditional trade that has sustained a region forever on the brink of collapse in one of the globe’s least forgiving environments.
“Given the impact of both seasonal weather fluctuations and the border closure, affected populations are now facing emergency levels of food insecurity and malnutrition, in particular the Lake Chad regions and surrounding areas cut off by the crisis in Nigeria,” said Bruno Maes, head of the UN Children’s Fund in Chad.
Sylvestre Bebang, district medical officer in Mao, about an hour from the lake, stood in searing heat one recent day and assessed the situation. He said 90 percent of the province’s reserve food stocks had been depleted in the first quarter of the year and he and his colleagues are now forced to turn away mothers with their children.
“We estimated that 229 children will need treatment for malnutrition each month,” Bebang said. “In April, we screened more than 1,000 children.”
The border closure due to Boko Haram has also caused unforeseen problems, including a collapse of Chad’s vital cattle trade to Nigeria. Mahamat Moustapha Soumaila, a livestock merchant, said the abundance of cattle within Chad had now caused the price to fall so low that they are not worth selling. And more cows in the region means more pressure on limited grazing areas.
A walk through the Saturday market in the town of Baga Sola produced other examples of hardship. Zari Gayi said she is now forced to sell a handful of tomatoes, onions and mangos to support her four children because her husband, who used to operate a ferry on the lake, is out of work. On a good day, she pulls in the equivalent of $5.
When Issaika, whose husband was killed, lived in Tounbounyashi, a small Nigerian coastal village near Baga, life was relatively good. She sold fabric while her husband fished and the family lived reasonably comfortably off rice, chicken, yams and fish.
She said that in February, when Boko Haram militants rounded up the community and demanded Baga’s chief be handed over, she hid her eldest daughter, 15-year-old Samsia.
“I heard stories of them taking teenage girls,” she said cradling her youngest girl, Yati, 18 months old.
As wild, dusty wind rocked her shack, Issaika recounted how Boko Haram militants threatened to “slaughter you all as punishment for fleeing Baga.” She added, “People were very scared, one man begged and joined Boko Haram and he was not killed.”
Claude Ngabu, head of the UN Children’s Fund in Baga Sola, adds that Boko Haram is hiding on Lake Chad’s islands. That means women and children remain under threat and are continually forced to fight or flee.
There is much potential -- alongside severe suffering -- in this region. Nigeria has Africa’s biggest economy and largest population. Chad is the continent’s seventh-biggest oil producer yet ranks 184th out of 187 countries in the Human Development Index and 73rd out of 78 on the International Food Policy Research Institute’s Global Hunger Index.
Because of the overlapping conflicts, Chad today has the world’s seventh-largest refugee population, including hundreds of thousands from the Darfur region of Sudan and tens of thousands from the Central African Republic.
On a visit last week, Peter Mauer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, spoke of the scale of the crisis around Lake Chad.
“Whole communities have fled their villages and endured unimaginable suffering,” he said. “Traumatized people, without homes, belongings, income and education for their children -- what does the future hold for them?”