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World

Tens Of Thousands Displaced By Boko Haram In Nigeria

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The conflict between the Nigerian military and Boko Haram insurgents has led to another crisis - catastrophic malnutrition. The medical charity Doctors Without Borders reports that children especially are in need of food and medical care. They say a major humanitarian operation is needed to save lives. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: At Muna informal displaced peoples settlement outside Maiduguri, the regional capital of Nigeria's troubled northeast, more than 13,000 people are living in precarious conditions. A sea of flimsy makeshift shelters covered in plastic sheeting stretches out for acres with virtually no trees, facilities or amenities anywhere in sight for the IDPs - the internally displaced people - driven from their homes by Boko Haram attacks. And it's the rainy season here.

HAMSATU ALLAMIN: Come down to Maiduguri - IDPs leaving in just shanty settlements by the roadside. You will find IDPs living in maybe some kind of abandoned area. They will just erect shanty shelters.

QUIST-ARCTON: Humans rights defender Hamsatu Allamin has visited these camps. She says the residents are living in appalling conditions. Allamin is the regional head of Nigeria's Stability and Reconciliation Programme.

ALLAMIN: I saw women who delivered inside shelters constructed with polythene bags. In fact, I always say the northeastern part of Nigeria is the region that rates lowest in all terms of human development indicators - poverty, illiteracy, hunger of recent, malnutrition.

QUIST-ARCTON: In this sprawling, unofficial camp, dozens of children are suffering from varying degrees of malnutrition. The crisis is exacerbated by the farming lean season, with not enough food to go around before the harvest. The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, is seeing patients in two-tented clinics it has erected at the camp. The most acutely malnourished children are referred to a therapeutic feeding center run by Doctors Without Borders, 15 miles away at Gwangeh.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILD CRYING)

QUIST-ARCTON: Dozens of mothers and their pin-thin babies and toddlers have gathered for a screening, weighing and possible admission for the most severe malnutrition cases, like two-year-old Zara Modu. She's painfully thin, with the classic symptoms of malnutrition, says senior nursing officer Yamamma Bukar. And they're admitting a growing number of children.

YAMAMMA BUKAR: Every week they're increasing. We're screening now. There are symptoms. They're tiny. There are sunken eyes, diarrhea, edema of the lower limbs, swollen limbs.

QUIST-ARCTON: UNICEF says 2 million people need relief aide. Nigeria's military says it is targeting Boko Haram's remaining hideouts with aerial bombardments and ground attacks. The army also claims it has defeated the extremists, yet the militants are still able to launch suicide attacks and ambush humanitarian convoys. The nurse in charge, Yamamma Bukar, at the Doctors Without Borders screening post sympathizes with the mothers, but says early action can mean survival for their children.

BUKAR: Yes, I am a mother. I will encourage them to take of their babies and bring them to the hospital, yeah.

QUIST-ARCTON: Doctors and nurses are manning out and inpatient wards, including an intensive care facility. All are chockablock - more than 120 children on the day we visit and two kids per bed. Malnourished children who come to the facility too late often die within the first 24 hours, say the medical staff. Those admitted early enough have a good chance of survival. The concern is that, without the food they need, they may be back. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Maiduguri, northeastern Nigeria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.