ABOUT THIS UNDP AFRICA INITIATIVE
These photographs and stories were documented in 2016 across six African countries that have been directly affected by violent extremism – Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Somalia and Uganda. It is hoped that this initiative will raise awareness on the human cost of violent extremism across the African continent and thereby drive and inspire continued efforts to prevent it.
The growth of violent extremism – and the devastating impact of groups espousing violent ideologies – is not only setting in motion a dramatic reversal of development gains in Africa, but is also threatening to stunt prospects of development for years to come. This perspective is unequivocally articulated in the United Nations Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism (2015), which states: Violent extremism undermines our collective efforts towards maintaining peace and security, fostering sustainable development, protecting human rights, promoting the rule of law and taking humanitarian action.
UNDP report: Journey to Extremism in Africa | Project website: Stories of Survivors | Press release
Photography Malin Fezehai and Ahmed Farah | Text Jessica Benko and Ahmed Farah
23 October 11:00 – 12:30
Rue Froissart 95
23 October to 5 November
Place de l’Albertine
On 13 March 2016, 22 people were killed and another 33 were injured when three gunmen armed with Kalashnikovs opened fire on the beach of Grand Bassam where families and groups of friends were enjoying a sunny Sunday afternoon. This day would forever change their lives. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) claimed responsibility for the attack. The attack at Grand Bassam shows the impact of violent extremism in places where no one would have expected an attack and reconfirms the transnational nature of the threat.
It’s still hard for Atouah to speak about her oldest son’s death, it hasn’t even been a year. He was popular in the neighbourhood, and the children loved him. He had been a carpenter, until a stroke at the age of 29 left him with a paralyzed right arm and made the use of his right leg difficult. He couldn’t bear to stay at home all day and told his mother that he didn’t want to wear out her patience. Since then, he worked to bring in income for the family by selling cigarettes and other small items to families enjoying themselves on the beach near the hotels and restaurants, just a short way from their home. When the attack happened, they couldn’t find his body among the dead, and they couldn’t find him in the hospital either. Days passed before his body finally washed up out of the ocean. “There were no other physical injuries among our neighbors,” Atouah says, “but our souls are hurt.”
“I used to be an ironworker,” Rolando Steven Lopoua says. “Before, I could do things myself, but now, I have to ask for help. I don’t like that.” He was the sort of person who took care of others. That day at the beach, he led his siblings into the ocean to play and swim. That’s when he saw people panicking. He was trying to help a German woman escape with them when he heard a cry, as she was hit. “I ran to help her and that’s when I was hit. I fell just next to her. I wanted to grab her hand so we could flee, but I couldn’t find it. I was bleeding all over.” She didn’t survive, and he almost didn’t. “Before putting me on the stretcher, they put a cloth over me. They thought I was already dead. I was choking under the cloth.” He cried out for his father and the first responders realized he was alive. He then lost consciousness. When he awoke, they had amputated his leg. He struggles with survivor’s guilt. “I don’t deserve it, but maybe I am here to do something else? I couldn’t save her life but maybe I can save other lives.”
Boko Haram has been active for over a decade and is based in northern Nigeria. In recent years, they have increasingly focused their deadly attacks on remote villages throughout northern Nigeria, and in bordering communities in Cameroon and Chad. More than 1.7 million people have been displaced in Nigeria alone because of Boko Haram’s activities and, in many cases, survivors’ homes and businesses were burned behind them as they fled. Tens of thousands have been murdered and thousands more kidnapped, including the 276 Chibok schoolgirls taken from their school in 2014. Most of the displaced were farmers, who have few opportunities to make enough money to support their families without access to their land. Many of the displaced have sought shelter in urban centers such as Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in north-eastern Nigeria.
“We were burying people until we couldn’t bury people anymore,” Asta says of the Boko Haram attack on her town. She hasn’t seen her brother since, and the last time she saw her father, he was being taken away in a truck together with 75 other men. She later saw photos of dead bodies of some of these men, although she didn’t see her father’s body among them. Her husband escaped during the attack. He ran with the other men because everyone mistakenly believed that women, children and the elderly would be left unharmed. Asta was held captive with others for nine months in the bush, surviving on no more than plant husks and salt. One morning at 3 a.m., she gathered her five children and fled, 30 or 40 kilometers on foot until she reached a safe place. She has reunited with her husband, and they live in a single room in Maiduguri.
More than 200 women and children live in this half-built concrete house, though it’s hard to keep track. People come and go. Not all the walls are finished. There are few doors, and ripped rice bags serve as room dividers for families. Food is alarmingly scarce, but the women cook together in the dirt alleys outside while the children race around after one another. The majority are Muslim, and come from the same hometown. Mohammed Rijiya Abatcha is the son of the president of the Chamber of Commerce for Bama, a powerful and wealthy man with several homes in Nigeria. When the flood of displaced people from Bama arrived in need of help, Mohammed turned the unfinished house over to them. “They lost everything that they have. They leave everything and they just come here to stay because of those people… they don’t even say the name ‘Boko Haram’ now; they cannot. They are just devils. There is no other way to describe them.”
“There are too many stories,” says Kasim, “It is not good to hear those stories.” He escaped from the village with a group of men when Boko Haram captured the area. They knew the men were under threat, but they learned later that nothing and no one was safe. “They take everything in the houses, and then they burn them.” He later learned that his younger brother did not survive the attack. His wife Maimuna and their first child were kept in a guarded house by a stranger who they referred to as an Emir. At first he gave them food, but it didn’t last. After a month, she made a plan to escape, running at midnight, carrying baby Faruk. Their town was destroyed, and they are now living among family in Maiduguri, and Kasim volunteers as a teacher twice a week at one of the camps for the internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Fati managed to escape before Boko Haram came to Dikwa. Word of their attacks on other towns in the region was spreading, and the fighters had begun to make incursions into villages on the outskirts of the region. Her younger brother was killed, and two of her nieces were kidnapped. Already widowed, she gathered her children with nothing but their identity papers and the clothes on their backs, and they made the journey to Maiduguri. A local family helped them to find a place, now a simple concrete structure with a small dirt lot, and generous neighbours gave them clothes. The children are mostly in school now, and she plans to remain in Maiduguri.
2010 Kampala Bombings
On 11 July 2010, attackers detonated bombs at two sites in Kampala, Uganda. Fifteen people died at the Ethiopian Village restaurant. Another 64 were killed in two blasts at the Kyadondo Rugby Club, where football fans had gathered to watch the final match of the FIFA World Cup. The first bomber detonated in the middle of the audience, and the second shortly after, near the exit as people streamed out. More than 70 people were injured but survived. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The Grand Finale of the Miss Uganda pageant is held in one of Kampala’s best hotels, in an oasis protected by heavy concrete barriers, winding gated driveways and armed guards. Brenda Nanyonjo, the pageant’s CEO, approves of the hotel’s security. Six years after sustaining shrapnel injuries in the Kyadondo attack, she still struggles with hypervigilance when around crowds of people. On 11 July, Brenda was still registering the first blast when the second exploded, and she felt what she thought was warm water running down her face. Shrapnel had pierced her jaw and scalp. It was weeks before she could talk or laugh again while her jaw healed, and terrible headaches continue still. She left her job while she was healing, and prayed for direction. “Empowering the girl child, that’s my passion,” she says. She sought out the Uganda license for the Miss World pageant and threw herself into the work as the pageant’s CEO. She and the young pageant competitors travel the country on behalf of NGOs that focus on keeping girls in school, preventing teen pregnancies, and encouraging young women to embrace agriculture as a business. “I keep on wondering, if I lose my life, will I have impacted as many girls as I can?”
“I was 15 hours in the mortuary,” Robert says. The folded dent in his skull shows in startling relief against the pale wall behind him. With a catastrophic wound to his head, he was mistaken for dead, left unconscious in the morgue until a medical student practicing placing intravenous lines in corpses realized that his blood was still flowing. Though his survival is near-miraculous, his injury has destroyed his life. His scalp presses against his brain where the cranium is missing, leaving him unable to control the left side of his body. The treatment needed to re-build his skull and possibly relieve his paralysis is unavailable in Uganda and he does not have the money to travel abroad for treatment. He cannot continue his former job in an industrial shop and cannot pay for his children’s school fees. He relies on an aunt to shelter him and help him with his most basic needs, like bathing or cooking. “You can’t ask a person for help year after year, every day. They get tired of you.” His desperation led him to thoughts of suicide, which he combats by visiting friends at his old workplace whenever he can get a ride. He wants to start a business that doesn’t require too much physical labour, but has no money to start up. “Why am I living? If God knew, he would have taken me there and then, instead of leaving me here in this kind of suffering.”
For three months after being injured by shrapnel in the Kyadondo bombing, Ahmed Hadji was unable to sleep regularly. He still avoids crowds and loud noises, and has never been able to bring himself to return to Kyadondo. He was devastated to learn that the attackers claimed to be Muslim. It made him question his religious identity. He then began to dedicate himself to a deeper study of Islam. He is completing a PhD in ‘Peace and Comparative Transnational Conflicts’, with a focus on religious factionalism and how it inspires conflict. The culture of suspicion of Muslims worries him.“It hurts. It’s hard that we play into the hands of these guys. It’s guilt by association, the fact that I am a Muslim.” He chose to pursue in-depth Koranic studies so he could disarm extremists “from a place of authority.” With Hassan Ndugwa, he co-founded the Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum to combat radicalization efforts aimed at Muslim youth. The bombing was a turning point for him. “I started asking myself: What is my role in this world? That’s when I realized it’s important to me to promote mercy, justice, love, common will, and common benefit.”
Hassan’s son is eight months old now, plump in his blue pajamas printed with bunnies. He squeals with delight when tickled, and is determinedly teaching himself to stand. “I want my son to inherit a more secure Uganda, and a more tolerant society,” Hassan says. The most traumatic outcome from the Kyadondo blasts for Hassan wasn’t the hole in his jaw, it was the rise in Islamophobia in Uganda after the attacks. “As Muslims, we felt our religion had been hijacked by extremists and Al-Shabaab to justify violence, which we felt is something we needed to put right.” In 2011, he sat down with friends, including Ahmed Hadji, and they founded the Uganda Muslim Youth Development Forum. “We engage young people, we encourage Muslim clerics to preach the message of peace, and provide positive alternatives to the young people that may fall prey to extremist lures.”
Zachariah remembers vividly: it was the 86th minute of the match final when the first bomber detonated. It felt like someone had bashed his ears; they were ringing so loudly. Dozens of shards of metal shrapnel had sliced into the skin of his torso and head, and even into his eyes so he could hardly see. He managed to drag himself out of the venue and across the road and to flag down a taxi. He woke up covered in blisters and blood, desperate to find his family and friends. “There were so many things I needed to work on that would help my life move on,” he says of the psychological effects. He stopped drinking, got serious at work, had a daughter he is devoted to, and saved money to buy a plot of land in his home village. “It makes you think you must be around for a reason.”
Nearly 200,000 people have been displaced in the far northern region of Cameroon, almost exclusively due to attacks by Boko Haram on their villages. They gather in improvised settlements or in host communities, such as in the towns of Moskota and Mora, because their home villages and farm fields are still vulnerable to attacks. The region also hosts 60,000 registered refugees at Minawao camp and another 27,000 unregistered refugees who have fled violence along the Nigerian border.
Internal displacement often feeds into and exacerbates pre-existing conflicts and the dynamics of displacement amongst pastoralists – not least since Boko Haram implements a strategy of stealing livestock and burning farmlands in rural communities. Amid increasing levels of insecurity Cameroon has previously closed its border with Nigeria and shut down markets in the border areas, hitting hardest those whose livelihoods depend on cross-border informal trade.
Even before incursions by violent extremists, the Far North region of Cameroon was already the country’s poorest region, with nearly 75 percent of the population living below the poverty line.
People thought Boko Haram only killed military and police, says Jolna. But when they came to his town in Nigeria, they started killing Christian civilians, burning their homes and taking cars and motorcycles. Jolna started spending the night in the bush, only coming home during the day. Then they surrounded the area, slitting throats and shooting people. They burned his house, hacked him with a machete. He has deep, puckered scars on his hands, back, legs and scalp. They demanded that he convert, but he refused, and they shot him and left him for dead. He survived for three hours, then crawled to find help. “Everything is gone,” he says. They took his animals, destroyed his house and his fields. The only work he can find now is collecting firewood. His wife left him and their children.
Seven of Tchiolemé’s children and one of his wives were kidnapped when Boko Haram attacked. His other wife left him because he had nothing to provide. They took his cows and goats, and the land where he used to grow onions is now too unsafe to farm. He currently lives as an internally displaced person (IDP), trying to support the daughter and granddaughter who live with him. He says Christians, Muslims and animists used to live together peacefully. Now, he feels like his community’s culture is lost. Few of their rituals and celebrations have survived their displacement. Christians and animists used to make traditional beer and sing together, songs of sadness and joy, of family histories and parents. They would improvise songs about current events. But now, they are too afraid of Boko Haram spies to lament their plight, and they are too afraid to sing.
Amina was heavily pregnant when she fled the hut where her husband had taken her somewhere across the border in Nigeria three years earlier. She ran barefoot for seven days, hiding in the bush or seeking shelter from strangers and barely surviving a violent assault from armed men who only left her barely alive because of her pregnancy. She describes her ordeal with little emotion, but she flashes a sharp edge of defiance, hard-earned from years stranded in a place where no one spoke her language, fending for herself, and near starvation. When she arrived home in her natal village, she was kept in a cell for days by local police – suspicious of female suicide bombers – until being released to her parents. She was malnourished and bleeding from her pregnancy, and her baby was born by emergency caesarean section. Her baby Ibrahim was born with health problems that continue to this day, and the hospital is holding her identity papers because she is unable to pay them for having delivered her child.
“Anyone caught escaping would be immediately killed.” Aissata Oumaté’s voice is soft. She spent two years in a house in a village in Nigeria that was deserted after being attacked by Boko Haram. She was brought there from her home in northern Cameroon, crying and against her will, on the back of a motorbike in a small convoy of her husband and his friends. She believes her husband was convinced by elders from his natal village to join the fight for a cause. When they were in Nigeria, he would disappear for months at a time, leaving her to forage for food and hide in the bush when battles came too close. During one of his absences, pregnant with her first baby and terrified, she convinced traders from Cameroon to smuggle her in their car back to Kolofata, where her parents were from. And when she found that they had fled to Mora, she followed them there. Her parents take care of her, but her prospects are poor. She has no schooling, and having been the wife of a Boko Haram fighter, she is stigmatized, and subjected to suspicion and scorn in the community.
The Boko Haram attackers who invaded Gouzda village two years ago ordered everyone to convert to their interpretation of Islam, or die. Matakon escaped into the bush, but his eldest son, age 23, was caught. When he refused to join Boko Haram, a fighter slit his throat. Matakon is now responsible for an extended family of 27 members, including nephews, nieces and grandchildren, living in a half-built house offered by a host in the town of Moskota. Formerly, he was a farmer cultivating green fields of sorghum, cotton, and onions, but now he can’t find work to provide for his family or pay for school fees.
Following two decades of civil war, the collapse of the Central Government of Somalia in 1991 led to the destruction of institutional systems and infrastructure, leaving a vacuum which violent extremist groups could exploit. Al-Shabaab has built a highly effective clandestine support network in the east African region, which it uses to recruit youth and enact deadly attacks. While most recruits are from Somalia and Kenya, significant elements of foreign fighters are recruited from outside the region, indicating the relatively broad level of appeal of such groups. Although the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) has forced Al-Shabaab out of many of its urban strongholds, the group remains active. Thousands of people have been killed or injured, including in the capital, Mogadishu.
Fiideey is a grandmother who is now raising five children after the death of her daughter. Her daughter’s husband was killed by an explosive device placed under his car; on the one-year anniversary of his death, her daughter was killed in the same way. “They were both independent journalists, which is probably the most dangerous job in Somalia today. There is no greater tragedy than for a parent to bury their child,” Fiideey says. She lacks sufficient financial means to support her grandchildren because she cannot work and raise the children at the same time, but she has managed to enroll three of the children in school. “I feel so much sadness when I think about the children growing up as orphans, and at the loss of my daughter, but being busy full-time with my grandchildren and helping them grow to be happy and successful adults is what keeps me going.”
“As a minibus driver, I was well acquainted with all the routes around the city and was always aware of the lingering risk of vehicles laden with explosives potentially taking the same routes.” Aaden normalized this as an occupational hazard in order to not be paralyzed with fear. On a typical workday, while shuttling kids and women around the city, he saw a convoy of cars transporting the President of Jubbaland. He pulled to the side of the road to make space for the convoy to pass when a speeding car, packed with explosives, drove into the space between and detonated. Aadan was the only survivor. He was bedridden in hospital for two months with extensive shrapnel wounds. He still passes by the place where it all happened. What remained of the bus is not too far away, a poignant reminder of what could happen.
“My sister was a very strong-willed person who took care of her family and business; she was that one person in the family who took care of everyone,” says Abdulkadir. She was the family’s breadwinner. While at work in the Baidoa market, a blast ripped through the market, killing her instantly. “We never got to recover a full body. The authorities handed over the parts of her they could find for a burial.” Her death followed another tragic misfortune for the family: her husband was killed by a car bomb a few years earlier. Abdulkadir travelled to Baidoa to arrange his sister’s funeral. Without any relatives to raise the children in Baidoa, Abdulkadir had no choice but to take the children to live with him in Mogadishu.
When Amina fell into labour unexpectedly, she was rushed to the hospital and her husband left work to be at her side. While en route, he was struck by the blast of a car bomb aimed at a government official. He died from his injuries the same day. It was a very difficult birth; Amina gave birth to a baby girl and slipped into a coma for six days. When she regained consciousness, she was informed that her husband had been killed on his way to the hospital. She feels that she still has not recovered from the shock and is distraught that her daughter will never meet her father. She currently survives on the generosity of friends and acquaintances, and whatever support she can receive from the community.
Addressing violent extremism within national borders sometimes results in the displacement of people and the spread of violence into neighbouring regions and countries. Battles among government forces, insurgent groups and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have driven tens of thousands of Malians from their homes, many fleeing across borders into Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. The high number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees in the region has had a destabilizing effect, exacerbating the vulnerability of already fleeing populations, and that of ‘host’ communities who have received them. Refugee camps and populations on-the-move have become easy targets for radicalized groups.
Hotel attack in Ouagadougou
On 15 January 2016, 30 people were killed in the capital Ouagadougou when heavily armed gunmen attacked the Cappuccino restaurant and the Splendid Hotel across the street, in a siege that lasted until the following morning when military forces liberated the hotel. Among the 176 hostages eventually released, 56 were injured. AQIM claimed responsibility for the attack.
His body and the gunshot wound in his shoulder healed faster than his mind. Ten minutes after the attack began, the shooter entered a meeting room where Clément was hiding with other people on the floor in the dark. They were certain that they would all die. He says that it is only divine intervention that prevented more deaths. The survivors hid for ten hours before they were rescued. Afterwards, Clément felt like his being was dysregulated for many months; he was irritable, emotionally and physically. Tiny things would upset him. At night, the scenes would return to him, above all, the sound of the gunshots. His belief in God helped him through.
After a month of volunteering at Sister Inès Kolesnore’s school, which houses girls who have escaped early marriage, her friends of ten years were about to leave for Canada. They were among the first people who were shot at the restaurant before the siege on the hotel began. Inès was able to identify four of their corpses; the other two were so badly burned that it took days to confirm their identities. The students at her school do not know all of the details, but they were devastated to lose their Canadian friends. She points out the walls painted with chalkboard paint throughout the classrooms and hallways, their project for their latest visit. They are covered with lessons and drawings in colorful chalk. The students have drawn elaborate vines and flowers around the edges. A banner drawn on one chalkboard in the hall reads, simply: “LOVE.”
Steven’s father was an upright man, serious, and fair. When Steven heard about the gunfire at the Cappuccino restaurant, where he knew that his father was meeting business associates, he thought it must be the military. He called his father’s phone repeatedly, but there was no answer. He feared the worst; his father would never have failed to contact them. The news of his death finally arrived around noon. Steven himself continues to work in a popular restaurant and club, a place he knows is considered a target. “You can decide to stay in the house, to no longer leave, to no longer laugh, but when your day comes, you’re finished just the same,” he says. “I think that’s what they want, to create a climate of fear, to make us change our way of living, to make us live in fear. No. We are going to live.”
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