Lake Chad: The faces of the world's 'silent emergency'

Aichadou, six, with her heavily pregnant mother Amina and four-year-old brother Ibrahim at an IDP camp for women and children, Mémé Image copyright Chris de Bode/Red Cross
Image caption Six-year-old Aichadou, pictured with her heavily pregnant mother Amina and four-year-old brother Ibrahim, has been practising her French on the walls of the building they have made home

The moment photographer Chris de Bode realised the young man was eating the contents of a nappy is one he will never forget.

He had been photographing the plight of the refugees who were seeking safety in northern Cameroon when he came across the man, who appeared disabled, sat outside a hut in the heat of the central African sun.

"I have been doing this work for quite a number of years," he told the BBC. "And there is always some dignity or something out there where you think: 'Things will be fine….'"

The photographer trails off. It was, without doubt, the worst moment of his trip to Meme - a village which had not seen an NGO for months before his arrival, leaving many surviving on just one meal a day.

But then, his trip to photograph some of the refugees trying to survive in an inhospitable landscape had been one of the most harrowing of his career.

"I am pretty experienced, I have visited a lot of refugees all over the world," he said. "But what I saw here - the makeshift camps, where there was no food, there are no trees, there is no shade.

"The only thing people can do is hang around and stay inside their little tent, and wait for the next day."

chelou Bossomi, 20, with her 18-month-old daughter Khalfoumi, and son Abba, 4, IDP camp on the outskirts of Mémé Image copyright Chris de Bode/Red Cross
Image caption Tchelou Bossomi, 20, with her 18-month-old daughter Khalfoumi, and son Abba, four, walked for two days to safety after her village was attacked

These are some of the victims of the Lake Chad crisis, which affects 17 million people across four countries - Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.

Despite the desperate need, the emergency here - caused by a combination of violence and climate change - has failed to make a lasting impression. It has led to it being referred to "the most neglected crisis in the world".

So many people have been displaced that northern Cameroon's only official refugee camp, in Minawao, has already been "overwhelmed" with people, according to Alberto Jodra, head of Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) Cameroon.

It means that many of those who have fled violence in their home villages and towns are still finding themselves caught between armed groups like Boko Haram and the armies of several countries.

That same violence prevents aid agencies like MSF reaching those most in need.

"We know that people who have been displaced are being caught in the crossfire," Mr Jodra told the BBC. "From time to time we see victims, but we have not got access to these places."

Ali, 15, his mother Amina, 50, and 80-year-old grandmother Aché Mal at a rented home in the outskirts of Mémé, Image copyright Chris de Bode/Red Cross
Image caption Ali, centre, is 15, but is very small for his age due to malnutrition. He lives in a rented house with his mother Amina, 50, and 80-year-old grandmother Aché Mal

The dangerous nature of the conflict has meant journalists have also struggled to always get access - and so the stories of the people living here sometimes go untold.

So de Bode's pictures, taken during a trip to the ravaged region with the British Red Cross earlier this year, were a rare glimpse of a problem.

At the time, despite having two IDP camps housing 18,000 people on its edges, non-governmental agencies - and the much needed aid they bring - had failed to reach it for months.

Why is Lake Chad a 'silent emergency'?

At a meeting of the United Nations earlier this year, it was suggested that $1.5bn (£1.16bn) in aid was needed to help the region for this year alone.

But, competing against so many other crises around the world, it is struggling to get the attention it needs.

The reason is complex, says the Red Cross's Alex Clare.

Ibrahim Sanda, chief of the village of Sarki, hosts 19 women and children in his home, Mokolo, extreme-north Cameroon. Image copyright Chris de Bode/Red Cross
Image caption Village chief Ibrahim Sanda has taken in 19 women and children since the crisis began

"It is about food and security and people going hungry, but the causes are not just climate change or one armed group - it is not easy to explain, and it is not easy to understand," she said.

It is further hampered by the fact "it is not sudden onset".

"It doesn't hit you in the face from one day to another," she said, "If you have an earthquake, that is something to react to immediately. But this is something that has been building since 2009, and significantly getting worse since 2014."

It is, de Bode says, a desperate place - both for those who had fled their own homes, and those who lived there already.

"What I felt when I was there is the enormous burden, not only on the people who fled the conflict but also on the people who receive these people," de Bode said.

"The family might have something for the small children, but nothing for the older ones. They are sent to market to beg.

"To have one meal a day is an achievement."

However, there is still hope in the most desperate of situations - even where you least expect it. For de Bode, it came from a family torn apart in the most brutal of ways.

Falta Oumara, 40, with her badly burnt son Modou, 7 at an informal IDP camp for women and children in Mémé Image copyright Chis de Bode/British Red Cross
Image caption Falta Oumara, 40, with her badly burnt son Modou, seven, fled their village after their home was set alight, killing Falta's older son

Madou is just seven years old, but his body is covered in scars he got the night a group of militants set the bedroom he and his brothers were sleeping in alight.

But Madou is the lucky one. Two brothers remain in hospital, and one died in the flames that night. He and his mother are now two more of the millions displaced around Lake Chad, living in a makeshift hut like so many others.

And yet, there was something special there, says de Bode.

"Sometimes you are kind of touched by the situation, you can never really see it coming.

"But I was just hit by the love between the mother and son. It is something we tend to forget when we look at statistics: it is very hard to find the human aspect. It is encouraging to see the love - I hope they will find a way to continue their lives, that this will be in the past."

See more of Chris de Bode's pictures at an exhibition of his work, One Meal a Day: The Lake Chad Crisis in Pictures, at St Martin-in-the-Fields' courtyard, London, until Sunday 25 June

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