Image of Displacement

A small crowd waits, standing or sitting, bending or kneeling, reclining or at attention. Some have turned to stare. Some are glancing away. Those who turn to stare in most cases are frowning. Those who turn away in some cases hide a smile. They stand on dense grass and stunted shrubs. A misty plain meets the sky behind them. It appears to be a morning during the cold dry season. Thus the jackets, sweaters, wrappers, scarves, and arms folded in self-embrace. There are men and boys, and there are women and girls. There are men who sit, boys who stand, women who sit, and girls who stand. What matters isn’t how old or how strong they appear. All seem equal in their distress.

In each webpage it appears the author of the photograph is unnamed. According to the Nigerian online newspaper Premium Times, it was taken in a camp for Internally Displaced Persons in Gombe State. Despite the up-close manner in which the crowd has been framed, making clear that more people are not pictured, the image is placeless in its graveness, representative of similar crowds in camps in other northeastern states. Panoramic in the range of emotions it expresses—as if the whole gamut of human despair has been covered, from face to face, from body to body.

The International Displacement Monitoring Centre estimates over two million displaced persons in Nigeria, mainly as a result of insurgency attacks by Boko Haram on their towns and villages. They are dispersed across the six northeastern states that cover more than a third of Nigeria’s landmass. They have been forced to flee their homes, to walk in the account of a survivor for fifty kilometers towards safety. Women amongst them, while seeking peace, have been raped. Children have known hunger to the point of starvation. Doctors in some of the camps conclude that many suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Several other versions of tragedy. Writing about the photograph, therefore, unfolds within a state of public calamity.

Surely individual pain should not be glossed over while illuminating a group’s desolation. The image of a group, regardless, can initiate solidarity—recognizable to anyone who has felt the pang of an unknown future, of homelessness, anyone who remains at the mercy of an inept bureaucracy.

Consider the individual faces. The photograph derives its ability to hold our interest from the faces it represents, which in most cases can be seen in their entirety. Onlookers can guess whose expression is resolute, resigned, or indifferent. Or yields no emotion. The ultimate attraction of the image is the diversity of despair it indicates.

Every photo essay on displaced people includes one in which a crowd is pictured waiting. Whether in Kibati, north of Goma, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Or in Bentiu in South Sudan. They wait for food, registration, or allocation to shelters. To wait is to remain uncertain. An incessant repetition of, “Today and tomorrow, God’s time is the best.”

The photograph reveals another characteristic of lives full of waiting: the appeal of their mute presence. Consider especially the man who wears a cap and sits on a bicycle cupping his chin. Consider how almost everyone is hardly pictured speaking, enveloped in a hush. The woman covered in a yellow-blue wrapper seen speaking, enveloped in a hush. The woman covered in a yellow-blue wrapper seen from the side seems to speak, but her gesture suggests a whisper. What is it about displacement that implies silence? Not an unspeaking silence, but silence as in a pause. Recall the silence Albert Camus describes in The Plague, where a strange plague afflicts inhabitants of a town in Algeria: “Therefore they forced themselves never to think about the problematic day of escape, to cease looking to the future, and always to keep, so to speak, their eyes fixed on the ground at their feet.”

A future eclipsed. What seems clear to most displaced people, however hard they try to forget, is their violent pasts. They know of villages razed, husbands murdered, girls abducted, wives enslaved, children orphaned. Surely they have hopes—to return to their homes, farms, neighbours, and to reunite with lost relatives.

In the photograph hope is deferred.

This image of displacement is full of young faces. Such as: the four boys who kneel and sit in the center. What education awaits them? Jobs? Family? A normal life for displaced Nigerian children is possible, if we bargain with the stubborn human insistence on hope. Yet I am terrified by what I see when I glance at them. Children cheated of the future. A future eclipsed.

There are two testimonies I retell, told first in Hausa in The Displaced, a 2014 documentary film by Sahara TV.

“My name is Taie Zakaria and I am from Michika. The circumstances we found ourselves made us run through the hills. While on the hills I met children with no parents. Being a mother I couldn’t leave them. So we gathered the children, over ten of them. A lady helped me with two and I was with eight. That’s how we further climbed the hill. While struggling through the hills, they still followed us to the hills. People watching said some of them were familiar. People from our place were going through the hills like they were hunting, hunting the lives of children like animals. That’s how we ran from the hills. Our men led through the borders of Cameroon. As women when we met them en route they won’t harm us but abduct the young girls. We followed the path to Betso which was an easy path. We got to Mubi and then got to Vimtim. Some people pitied us and helped us. Some entered caravans, pickups, and so on. The lucky ones managed to get into vehicles and that was how we found ourselves here with relatives. When it rains we have nowhere to sleep. The children keep crying, they don’t know anything. They expect to be fed as usual. Some of our men help out by working in town, using the proceeds to feed the children. This is our struggle. This is my story to the best of my knowledge.”

“My name is Victoria Steven, from Hyembula in Madagali Local Government. This ugly incident happened on the 5th of September at about 5pm in the evening. We started to hear sounds of gunfire coming from Gulak town. We were told that the terrorists had indeed arrived. We began to run to the bush for safety. We were then told that it was a ruse, that it was actually the military that was firing. We got excited and returned home. We came home and had food. Sporadic gunfire began again, but this time it was edging closer. We said to ourselves the terrorists had indeed arrived. We started running that night. We ran into the bushes again. We slept in the bushes, we could even see bullets flying. We slept in the bush till morning, then we came back home in the morning. There was no one there but we still returned to the bush. We spent the daytime in the bush and sneaked home in the evening to cook and return to the bush. We were there for six nights. As the fighting and gunfire got more intense, we heard that they were also abducting people. We ran further. We stayed in the bush till morning. Then started trekking with my daughter who gave birth in the ensuing chaos. A lot of people including children trekked along with us. There was hunger and there was thirst. We trekked to a village called Wuro Dole and spent two days. The food was so small that the adults had to starve for the children to feed. We left the village to cross a large river. We had to pay 200 naira per person to cross. We traded our only goat to cross the river with my family. We continued trekking with my infant granddaughter whom we had to strap on our back. We arrived Lassa and got a vehicle to ferry us to a relative’s house in Yola who is a police officer. After two days he managed to get us this accommodation you are seeing.”

A dozen news reports on the Premium Times website have been illustrated with this photograph. In it’s earliest use, on March 5, 2015, it was placed against the headline, “Civil society groups hopeful on adoption of Nigeria’s IDP policy.” In succeeding months it appeared under the following headlines: “63,000 displaced persons taking refuge in Plateau,” “NEMA receives another 650 Nigerian IDPs from Cameroon,” “Over 70,000 IDPs to vote in Borno Camps,” “Boko Haram: Nigerian military arrests 2 men for sneaking into displaced persons’ camp,” “4 Boko Haram suspects arrested at displaced persons’ camp,” “Displaced persons in Gombe dying of starvation,” “Borno commences relocation of IDPs from schools,” “Bomb blast hits Yola displaced persons’ camp,” “Fighting breaks out at Abuja IDP camp,” “Boko Haram: Adamawa to shut down IDP camps by December,” and “Malnutrition hits Adamawa IDP camp.”

What’s the extent of a press image? Possibly none. Press images generate a surfeit of news stories, implying the value placed on them by an online newspaper like Premium Times—an image illuminative of any and every story on internal displacement. Nigerian online journalism is bereft, thrashing about in search of visual language to express now-commonplace desolation.

Consider a response to displacement that is bereft. I speak primarily of Nigerians away from the northeast or in the diaspora, and how they might respond to stories about displaced persons. Hence a reiterated question: how might they? The sort of language that surrounds images of displacement—for instance, where one image is used to illustrate varying news stories—matter greatly. Is it a language cheapened by clichés? One that disturbs the comfort of readers and viewers? Is it a language that delivers empathy? Does empathy deliver on its promise of solidarity? What are the limits, and possibilities, of empathetic emotions? What can I put up against the despair of this moment, staring at their faces?

A paragraph varnished with question marks. I write to put myself in question: What language have I learned to express solidarity with the displaced. What registers suffice. Some questions become propositions, too heavy for punctuations.

“Outdistance.” To write about this photograph is to offer that prefatory word.


Image credit: Premium Times Nigeria