Geneva — The UN refugee agency on Friday said it was deeply concerned at the recent wave of attacks on civilians in north-east Nigeria. "The brutality and frequency of these attacks is unprecedented," spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva. "The past two months have seen multiple kidnappings and deaths, creating population displacement both inside Nigeria and into neighbouring countries," he told journalists.
Refugees and internally displaced people alike are reporting acts of extreme violence, and show clear signs of distress and fear. Some have witnessed friends or family members being randomly singled out and killed in the streets.
People speak of homes and fields being burned to the ground, with villages completely razed, or grenades being launched into crowded markets, killing people and livestock. There is mention of people being caught in fighting between insurgents and the armed forces, arbitrary arrests under the suspicion of belonging to insurgent groups, and other serious alleged crimes, including summary executions.
Terrorized students who had survived attacks on their schools in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states have told UNHCR how they saw friends being killed or kidnapped. From media reports, the April 14 abduction of more than 200 girls in a school in Chibok in Borno state appears to be just one in a series of similar kidnappings from schools in north-east Nigeria in recent months.
Next week will see the first anniversary of Nigeria's declaration of a state of emergency in Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe states. In all, 250,000 people are now internally displaced, according to the Nigeria Emergency Management Agency. Some 61,000 others have fled to neighbouring Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Most are Niger nationals who were living in Nigeria, but 22,000 are Nigerians who have been made refugees by the crisis.
Edwards said the situation in southern Niger was particularly difficult, with poor security and remoteness making it more difficult to provide humanitarian help. In the Diffa region, just across the border from Nigeria, between 700 and 1,000 people are arriving each week.
"These people are fleeing attacks by insurgents or out of fear of retaliatory action by the Nigerian military. UNHCR teams in the area say 1,500 people have recently arrived in a single village to the south of Diffa town following an attack on the other side of the border by six insurgents on April 20," the spokesman said.
Some of the new arrivals lost everything in the attack: 35 houses and 25 shops were burned, food stocks were set on fire, and two men were wounded. Mahamadou, aged 34, said armed men set fire to his stock of peppers.
"My wife and my children started to scream and they quickly left the house," he said, adding: "I had found refuge in a tree just before their arrival, because I knew they were looking for men and that I could get killed. I spent the night in the tree, I did not sleep at all. In the morning, we fled to Niger."
At present the refugees are staying in abandoned houses that will be at risk of flooding when the rainy season starts in June-July. UNHCR is working with its partners to relocate the refugees to a drier environment.
Including the Diffa region and villages and other sites on Lake Chad, 100 kilometres to the east, UNHCR and its partner the International Rescue Committee have registered 15,700 people over the past six weeks. These are people who have fled the attacks of recent months, mainly in Borno state.
"At present we are monitoring the situation for possible new displacement in light of ongoing military operations against suspected insurgents just across the border," Edwards said.
A second area of potential new displacement is across the border from Borno state in Cameroon's Far North Region across the border from Gamboru Ngala in Borno state. Media reports say more than 100 people were killed last Monday during market day in Gamboru Ngala. Some 6,800 Nigerian refugees have arrived in the Far North Region since May last year. 2,500 of these have been relocated to Minawao camp, 150 kms from the volatile border area.
Neighbouring Chad has seen 1,553 people arriving from Nigeria over the past year.
Hélène Caux in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this article
Correction: The figure in the final paragraph for arrivals in Chad from Nigeria was corrected from 550 to 1,553 on 9 May at 15:50 CET.