Zara Malam’s son Mohammed was just five months old when Boko Haram stormed their village in northeastern Nigeria and carried them off to their stronghold in the Sambisa forest.
After several months as a hostage, the boy’s head is enlarged from malnutrition and crinkled skin sags from the joints of his tiny, boney body.
“They (Boko Haram) did nothing for my son and the same for the other children… No food, no clothing, no water… Not a single thing,” she says as she sits nursing him under her long hijab on the floor of the Federal Medical Centre in Yola.
Zara is one of 15 women hostages injured by gunshots or landmines when Nigerian troops freed them after storming Boko Haram bases in the forest last week.
But even here in the relative safety of Yola in neighbouring Adamawa state, they still have to have armed guards on the door.
“We were so happy when the soldiers came. Now, I just want him to get well,” the 25-year-old told AFP.
Zara and some of the other women sit on the ward floor, leaving the beds to the more badly injured. Cradled in their arms, are emaciation, hollow-eyed children being treated for severe malnutrition and dehydration.
Too weak to cry
The former hostages were brought to the hospital on Tuesday from the Malkohi Camp on the outskirts of Yola, where 275 women and children arrived on Saturday after their rescue from the Sambisa Forest in neighbouring Borno province.
Four other emaciated children were brought to hospital at the same time. They, too, seem too weak to cry, unlike the “unaccompanied” young boys and girls, whose wailing cuts through the air.
“When they (the rescued hostages) arrived there were not less than 100 children,” said nurse Ruth Ugwu, who works at the camp’s clinic.
“When we started screening, we discovered that 31 were acutely malnourished, all of them under the age of five.”
Some are now gaining weight through a diet of powdered milk, vitamins, juice and oatmeal supplied by local, national and international aid agencies, she added.
The prognosis for all the children now in hospital is good, including Mohammed.
“They should be OK,” said Ugwu.
More children to be born
More children will be born to the women in the camp in the months to come. About 10 to 15 women are in the early to mid-stages of pregnancy, said retired midwife Mary Samuel Galadima.
“They will need attention,” she added.
Meanwhile, women and girls lined up to receive second-hand clothes donated by the Adamawa state government in the courtyard outside dormitories containing bunk beds and mosquito nets.
One woman, in the ankle-length robe and head covering common in the Muslim-majority north, held up a pair of silver, flared trousers with a mixture of excitement and bemusement.
Across the dusty compound, which before the new arrivals already housed some 850 people who fled Boko Haram’s rampage in northern Adamawa last year, deliveries of rice were offloaded from pick-up trucks.
Bags and boxes of foodstuffs are stockpiled in the warehouse alongside mattresses, coloured buckets, instant noodles, salt and wheelbarrows.
Some former hostages lie on mats or under the shade of trees. Others sleep.
“When they arrived on Saturday, they came directly to the kitchen for a cup of tea, bread, milk and water,” said Hassan Bello, of the Adamawa State Emergency Management Agency (ADSEMA).
“The women with children took more.”
“Health should be a priority”
Clearly efforts are being made to help the former hostages recover both physically and mentally. ADSEMA, its federal equivalent and organisations such as the Nigerian Red Cross are all involved.
But the violence in the north of Adamawa and across Borno and Yobe states has seen Yola’s population swell by hundreds of thousands because of its reputation as a safe haven.
Many are staying with host families or friends in the city.
With no indication of when it will be safe for refugees to return, local resources are stretched, volunteers said, with more supplies and longer-term support required.
An ambulance wasn’t available to take Mohammed and the other malnourished children to hospital, so Turai Kadir did it herself.
“They were in the camp for four days without doctors,” the community worker said, shaking her head.
“There should be doctors for women and children to see them first before camping them in a room. Health should be a priority…
“The government can’t take care of the IDPs (internally displaced people).”