Under the scorching sun in a displaced people’s camp in the Upper East Region, toddlers gather around a mortar and pestle, pounding what looks like the day’s lunch.
The four children occasionally stopped the pounding, dipped their hands in the mortar and licked their fingers. But a closer look revealed it was an empty mortar. In it was the whitish remains of whatever meal the family might have prepared the previous day or night.
This was the plight of displaced children at the Sapeliga camp in the Bawku West District of the Upper East Region. They were too young to explain their situation, so The Fourth Estate turned to a watchful teenager, Aliyata.
“We sometimes eat only once a day, which is insufficient for us,” she said.
With her bristled hair, cracked lips, and emaciated face, she appeared hungry at the time of The Fourth Estate’s visit.
The 14-year-old and her family fled to Ghana from Kaya, Burkina Faso’s fifth largest city, located in Sanmatenga Province after it was rocked by violent attacks. In the last five years, the West African country has been struggling to deal with extremists who continue to unleash violence in some parts of the country.
Aliyata and her family arrived in Ghana three years ago, but her education, and that of many other children in the camp, is on hold.
Her family is part of 1.9 million people from Burkina Faso that the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, reported were internally displaced as of the end of April 2022. This is due to worsening violent extremism in the Sahel.
According to statistics from the Ghana Refugee Board, as of November 2022, there were about 2000 displaced persons from Burkina Faso in the Upper East Region of Ghana due to violent extremism in West Africa.
They are housed in six different camps, including Sapeliga, where Aliyata lives. In her new world where role models are almost non-existent, she wished she could go to school.
“I don’t want to go to Kaya again because of the fight,” she said.
She wanted a future that looked different from anything she was experiencing at the moment. She was not the only displaced child suffering from such a fate.
Aliyata has 11 siblings in the camp. Her father, Mady Bukhari, left Kaya, in a near-death situation. Two out of his ten children at the time were in school when extremists invaded the school, killed the teachers, and burnt down the school, he said. His children and many schoolchildren escaped. In the midst of the violence, he ensured that was the last time his children were ever going to be in that school.
Mady, together with his two wives and ten children, began their journey to nowhere. They had heard of Ghana but had no clue where it was. Cote d’Ivoire, the nearest French-speaking country was too far, he said. So, the only option was Ghana.
He drove the little children in a donkey-driven cart. Without water or food, they survived on the benevolence of people in the communities along their journey.
At the sight of a vehicle, they rushed for cover to remain unseen.
It was a 371-kilometre journey that took one month. They wandered and maneuvered their way through the plains of the Burkinabe savannah till they eventually got to Ghana.
At Sapeliga, the shadows of a big tree served as their home during the day. At night, they laid their mats on the floor, where the family of 13 slept. For seven days, their bed and home were under that tree, until the chief of the community and other supporters came to their aid. The chief provided a land while UNICEF provided structures to accommodate them.
The 41-year-old Mady has no intention of going back home.
He said he had found a comfort zone far away from the chaos in Kaya where the foundation of his economic existence had been threatened. In Ghana, he makes enough from his farm.
He sells some of the farm produce and sends part of the money to his family back in Burkina Faso. Through the venture, he earns enough to take care of his parents and siblings who joined him months after his journey to Ghana. Since that attack, Mady said he could not trace one of his younger sisters.
Hunger & violence
Unlike Mady, 61-year-old Ajara Bukari’s life hasn’t taken a good turn. As she sat in the only makeshift tent at the Yarigungu camp in the Bawku Municipal, surrounded by two older women and a young woman, her major headache was the next meal.
The double tragedy of being far away from home and jobless makes life extremely difficult for her and the other women.
On days they got to do manual jobs for people, they set off early morning to the field to work and raise money to fend for themselves and their families.
But this was not one of such days. As a Ghanaian married to a Burkinabe, she lived most of her life in Beriyale in Burkina Faso.
However, violent extremism drove her out of her home one night in June 2022.
She is constrained from going back to her hometown, in Bawku, also in the Upper East Region because of a chieftaincy dispute that has kept the town under curfew for months.
“We were in bed [in Burkina Faso] at midnight when we heard gunshots. I quickly grabbed the little children in the house and we started running to safety,” Ajara recalled.
That night’s attack left an indelible memory in Ajara’s mind. She continues to live in fear of the unknown. She knew a member of her community watch committee who was killed during the attack. That night, two men were murdered during the attack.
Bio (not his real name) is one of the survivors of that attack. He was one of the six community watchdog members trained and given guns to protect the community. However, that night, the guns they swore to protect their community with became the cause of death of his two colleagues.
Bio told The Fourth Estate they received intelligence about the attack a few days earlier but could not do anything to avert it. The two men who were killed had their guns taken from them. He believes they were attacked because of the guns.
Together with women and children, they all left for Bansi in the Binduri District, a community that shares a border with Ghana.
To survive, women in the various camps still travel to Burkina on foot to farm. This is in spite of the danger of drowning while crossing a nearby river.
“What will we eat? How can we eat if we do not go?” the former watchdog member asked.
It takes Aisha 15 minutes from her new home in Ghana, the Gentinga camp, to get to her farm in Burkina Faso, where she was harvesting okro with her children during The Fourth Estate’s visit.
She fled into Ghana from the Beri community, which is near the Burkina Faso-Ghana border. The community looked deserted when The Fourth Estate visited.
On the night of the attack that forced her to abandon her home, Aisha said all she heard were gunshots. She immediately packed a few clothes and left with her children for Ghana.
She did not care about the distance to her farm because she needed to eat and feed her children. Her husband had left for the Ashanti Region to find a job. She heard from him only once.
“He does not have a job yet, so he is unable to send enough money to cater for the home,” she said.
Efforts made to ensure the safety of displaced persons
The UN convention on refugees says, “Once persons have been displaced, they retain a broad range of economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights, including the right to basic humanitarian assistance (such as food, medicine, shelter), the right to be protected from physical violence, the right to education, freedom of movement and residence”.
However, due to increasing economic challenges Ghana is struggling to meet its international obligations to the displaced persons. This is in spite of assistance from some humanitarian organisations.
At Sapeliga, Ghana’s health authorities had measures in place to ensure that the displaced persons were in good health. Health workers in the Sapeliga CHPS compound visited the displaced persons each day to provide healthcare services.
However, Ajara who lives in the Yarigungu Camp has a problem with healthcare delivery.
“As for the health sector, something must be done for us. I do not have health insurance so I cannot visit the health centre when I am sick,” she said.
Like Mady, most of the displaced persons were given lands to farm to enable them have enough food to feed themselves and their families.
The Acting Executive Secretary of the Ghana Refugee Board, Tetteh Padi, told The Fourth Estate there had been a delay in the integration of displaced persons due to their constant movement to and from their town of origin which posed a security risk to the country. He, however, added that registration had started to ensure their refugee status.
“Sometimes, asylum seekers think they are going to be here for a short time. When things get better, they will go back and so they will not avail themselves to our structures,” Mr. Padi said in response to The Fourth Estate question about the lack of certain key infrastructure.
On security, Mr. Padi said, “Some unscrupulous persons have taken advantage of the refugee regime and have gained legitimacy into the system and are perpetrating their acts. We have been working with the security agencies and organisations on the ground for some basic services, but we are now going to do a full-scale registration of the displaced and grant them temporary status.”
The Government of Ghana, through the National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO), in collaboration with UNICEF and the UNHCR, continues to provide food and clothing to the displaced persons in the various camps. The Red Cross is another major contributor to the support of displaced persons as it continues to provide shelter.
The District Chief Executive of the Bawku West District, Tahiru Issahaku Ahmed, acknowledged that reintegrating the displaced persons into society had been a challenge but the district would continue to assist in any way it could to ensure their comfort.
“As of now, we are discussing with WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] team and they will need to get there and try to think about how we can get pit latrines. That’s what we are recommending for every household, so now that they have come, we should use them as a starting point. They will not be doing open defecation,” the DCE said.
“Some of them, their mothers and fathers are not at the camp, so we need to give them education. UNICEF promised us a tent that can be used as a school, but there is a barrier,” he said.
With children in the camps having a French background, he said language was one of the constraints to schooling the children. He, however, said they would find a way out.
When this reporter asked the DCE about the safety of the displaced persons due to the country’s porous borders, he said the situation posed a security threat.
“If you are in Sapeliga, any road you take can get you out of the country [Ghana], and in the same way, people come through different routes. Where the people [displaced persons] are now is not different. People outside can access them easily,” the DCE said.
He was, however, quick to add that the security officials were in control to ensure the safety of the country.
The Upper East Regional Minister and Chairman of the Regional Security Council, Stephen Yakubu, said, “There are people who are watching for us. You see that people are crossing to farm and coming back with some of them being Ghanaians because the farmlands there (Burkina Faso) are fertile enough.
“Because of the river at the Bansi area, we are thinking of getting them (displaced persons) a boat even for the security because if someone crosses to do something and quickly runs back, how do you chase the person? So, we are planning to get these logistics and we are very serious in terms of security. It is the reason Ghana is still safe,” the regional minister added.
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