Every war is a war against children. So said Eglantyne Jebb, the woman who founded Save the Children to help children starving following the First World War. I’ve just seen the truth of her words, in Borno, north east Nigeria.
Borno has suffered from 7 years of brutal insurgency, finally hitting the global headlines 2 years ago following the abduction of hundreds of girls from a school in Chibok, Borno.
The impact of this conflict on Nigeria’s children is horrific – they are being killed and maimed, forced to fight a war that is not of their making, and witnessing unimaginable acts of violence.
Hundreds of children’s graves
And children are not just losing their lives in active conflict – they are dying from hunger and disease. Dying from lack of food, water and basic healthcare.
Hundreds of children’s graves have been discovered in parts of Borno which have recently become accessible following advances made by the Nigerian armed forces.
The UN has reported that 400,000 children are severely acutely malnourished – which is life-threatening without treatment.
Statistics are hard to digest, so to put this in context, that’s equivalent to the population of Bristol.
I met some of these severely acutely malnourished children in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state, at a stabilisation centre that we run.
I met Saliha, who was 20 months old but looked much younger. She was visibly malnourished – very thin, distressed, with welts on her skin.
The doctor told me she and her mother were found, with Saliha in a desperate state, and brought to the stabilisation centre.
Saliha’s mother Rakiya told me insurgents had attacked her village in Konduga, in the south of Borno state. They killed her husband and burned down her house.
Rakiya managed to escape with her two children, and fled to Maiduguri. One of Rakiya’s children then died from measles, aged just two. Her sole surviving family member, Saliha, was fighting for her life.
Desperate shortage of supplies
I also talked to Falmata, who was in the stabilisation centre with her daughter Bintu, who was two. Bintu had pneumonia and malaria, as well as acute malnutrition. She was incredibly thin and listless.
The doctor told me that as well as the antibiotics he was administering to Bintu, she needed an oxygen cylinder. But he only had one, which was being used to help an emaciated baby in an overflow ward.
This baby was in a worse condition, the doctor judged, so she got the oxygen. What a judgment he had to make – one he has to make every day, with limited supplies and equipment and overwhelming need.
Urgent need for international support
Most of the children in the stabilisation centre would be dead if it were not there. And yet the centre only has funding to continue for the next few months. We urgently need longer term funding to secure the centre’s future and the futures of the children it is reaching.
And we need the funds to set up more such centres in Maiduguri – which has doubled in size due to the massive influx in displaced people fleeing the conflict – and in other parts of Borno.
And yet the response of the international community has been in no way equal to the scale this massive humanitarian crisis.
The UN’s 2016 appeal was only 38% funded. The UK, the US and the EU have stepped up, and our scale up to other parts of Borno has been enabled by early support from the Dutch. But the general response from the donor community has been woefully inadequate. Italy has given just $2.2m, Norway $1.1m and Australia $221,000.
75,000 children’s lives at stake
Without immediate action to reverse donor apathy and commit the funds for a significant scale up of the humanitarian response, the UN predicts 75,000 children will die.
The UN is shortly to launch its funding appeal for 2017 which is likely to be twice as large as the unfunded 2016 appeal, in response to the huge scale of the crisis in north east Nigeria – where 13.4 million people are now in need of humanitarian assistance.
History will judge us for how we respond.
Names have been changed to protect identities.