Trauma healing for people displaced by Boko Haram attacks in North East Nigeria

Sister Franca Onyibor, Missionary Sister of the Holy Rosary, writes about the healing work she and her colleague, Duke, are doing in some of the camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs)

There are 700 people at this camp and they all wished to participate. Sadly, for a start, we are choosing to work with the number we can manage (35) and choosing from those most in need.

I am gradually coming to accept my human limitations regarding the number of IDPs still longing for healing. We hope and pray that whatever healing comes to those who do some work with their trauma will somehow impact the larger community in a meaningful way.
As we sat there on benches under the shade of the trees in the middle of their camp, listening to their stories was shocking, horrifying, heart breaking, and awe-inspiring for me. In addition, listening to the stories of how they came to the camp was very difficult for all – and the pain of those experiences was very evident on many of the faces. One woman still does not know the fate of 3 of her children taken by Boko Haram. Can you imagine the kind of courage it requires to face that pain? All of them face this kind of pain in one way or another; and yet all still have room for great gratitude also……. it is very humbling for me. Simultaneously they  began to get more connected with how their enormous pain lives in their bodies and to explore some ways to calm that. We focused on somatic or body-based activities to help them to reconnect with their physical being-ness.

Over the first couple of days most of the IDPs showed limited emotional expression and although they said that it was good what we were doing together, it was difficult to discern any impact. It was not until the third day when one of the women, who had lost more than 50 members of her family, reported that last night was the first time she slept all the way through the night without awaking, that we began to notice subtle but definite changes.  After this, slowly others reported improved sleeping, with another woman exclaiming still in some surprise “I was sleeping so deeply that someone actually had to come and wake me up because they were wondering where I was!”  Others began to report feeling lighter in their bodies, one woman stating, “It is as if my shoulders are not carrying so much weight.” In general the mood lightened and more emotion seemed to be present, and occasionally laughter.

Haunted by the memories

Many reported the horror of watching their loved ones die in front of them; and this was compounded by not being able to do anything to help save them, or even to be able to offer the dead the dignity of burying the body.  This was haunting many of the participants. So on the last day we had a ceremony where they were able to symbolically bury their dead and/or turn their loved one who had disappeared and their status was unknown over to God. During the ritual ceremony participants brought symbols of their deceased or missing loved ones. Not one, but four different people, brought a tree branch with many, many leaves as a symbol for the more than 50 people they lost in their families – it was more than I could take in; to imagine that this woman or this man in front of me has endured such a level of loss and is still able to be standing and functioning… it is a strength I am not sure I possess. Nonetheless, the ritual was a solemn and powerful experience as each person came up to the ceremonial ‘altar’, spoke their loved ones’ names and shared briefly how this person had touched their lives. One of the IDPs expressed her huge relief in these words: “I no longer see bodies of my loved ones eaten by pigs and dogs. With this ‘burial’ ceremony, I see them in their full humanity and beauty and I am relieved.” The pain of loss was there, but so too was the deep love that those who passed had brought into their lives.


At the close of the 4 days many reported that this ritual was the most empowering thing that they had done, and that they felt a huge amount of relief having finally buried their dead with the care, love and dignity befitting a loved one. These IDPs were so grateful for the work – just even for the fact that someone cared for them enough to spend 4 days together; it was very humbling. They expressed their deep appreciation to those whose financial support made our work possible, requesting that we carry to you all bags and bags of gratitude from their hearts to yours….

We are indeed immensely grateful to you whose prayers and donations are making all this possible. For example it is because of your donations that we are able to provide lunch to the IDPs who come for the workshop, pay the airfare for Duke to come to Nigeria and to travel to these risky places (to name a few). Had we not provided lunch for the participants, they would need to endure a 20 minute walk each way in blistering heat without shade to return to their camp, make their own food, and then walk back. This would have significantly impacted their ability to participate. So thank you from all of them to you for this gift.

In a recent letter Franca adds to her thanks.  “There is so much good news which I long to share. Since the peace project in North East Nigeria, some of those we encountered have caught the passion for peace. For example, one of our Fulani collaborators has taken the message of non-violence to mosques – and his message is being received. Many more are asking him to come to them. Here in Nigeria there is huge tension between Igbos and the Muslim North, fueled by hate messages to each other. In response, our team is in the process of meeting Igbo chiefs and Imams for a forum on non-violence, with groups in Northern states as well as Kogi and Enugu…. Please keep us in your powerful prayers.”


Franca belongs to an international organisation committed to Non Violence.  See also her article Passion for Peace in North East Nigeriaposted September 2017

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