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General News of Sunday, 15 February 2015

Source: telegraph.co.uk

Perilous journey through the reed-beds of Lake Chad to escape Boko Haram

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Like Biblical fugitives, people fleeing Boko Haram dodge among the bulrushes to reach safety in Chad. One woman went into labour on a boat halfway through the journey, giving birth within an hour of arrival.

The western shore, now under Boko Haram’s control, is only 30 miles from the eastern coast in Chad. But the journey through a maze of channels, threading their way between islands and reed-beds, takes about 12 hours. Only skilled boatmen can make the passage.

Altchi Kongoue collected at least 100 Nigerian refugees in his slender wooden barge last month. He travelled with a convoy of nine other boats, which together brought about 1,000 refugees to the lakeside town of Baga Sola in Chad.

The journey was slow and perilous. “People were frightened and they didn’t want to move to help navigate through the reeds,” said Mr Kongoue, 25. There are no lifebelts on board his boat and Lake Chad lacks anything resembling a rescue service. If the vessel had overturned, the passengers would probably have drowned.

And Mr Kongoue’s boat was dangerously overloaded. “Everybody was there: women, children, men,” he recalled. “They were cold and they were hungry. The women and the kids had no blankets and they were soaked with water.”

Nonetheless, Mr Kongoue and the other boatmen made the night-time journey successfully without losing any passengers. Like Biblical fugitives, they threaded their way through the bulrushes to arrive in Chad soon after dawn.

One refugee on an earlier boat was particularly vulnerable. Aisha Al-Haji Gorba was in the last days of pregnancy when Boko Haram raided her home town of Doron Baga in Nigeria on January 3.

She fled this devastating attack with her husband, Umaru, and their three children. For the next three days, the family hid in the surrounding bush country, sleeping in the open air. During this time, Mrs Gorba experienced her first contractions.

Then the family clambered on board a boat packed with other refugees bound for Chad.

By the time they were half way through the 12-hour journey, Mrs Gorba was in labour.

“My husband said ‘we have to pray hard. We just want you to give birth safely,” she remembered. “I felt bad because there were so many people around us. But my husband said that if we pray hard, the boat will arrive in time.”

Lying at the bottom of the boat, surrounded by other people, Mrs Gorba was in the throes of labour for about six hours. Then the vessel finally landed near the Chadian town of Kilbuwa. She gave birth within an hour of arrival on dry land.

Her new son is healthy and lies in her arms. Mrs Gorba has chosen to name him Idriss Deby, in honour of the president of Chad who has given 17,000 Nigerian refugees sanctuary in his country. “It is a miracle,” said Mrs Gorba, who believes that her son’s safe delivery was an answer to her prayers.

Today, the family lives in Dar-es-Salaam refugee camp outside Baga Sola. Her son, who is just over a month old, was one of the first Nigerians to be born a refugee from Boko Haram.

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