Impoverished villagers in Nigeria's Niger Delta have been forced to flee for their lives since the army launched its offensive against militants last week. Hundreds of people displaced by the fighting are now living in a makeshift camp, under very deplorable conditions, in the delta town of Ogbe Ijoh.
The chaos at the Ogbe Ijoh refugee camp was unmistakable. With very little to eat or drink, already traumatized mothers struggled to calm their starving babies.
Several of them half-naked and crammed into a primary school building with poor sanitation, with the bare floor for a sleeping space and at the mercy of mosquitoes, desperate women painted a harrowing picture of army attacks on their settlements and their plight at the Ogbe Ijoh camp.
Esther Clark, a local chief in Gbaramatu, was among the exhausted multitude that made it to Ogbe Ijoh.
"They brought some food which cannot even take care of one village in our community. Nobody has eaten since mornings," said Clark. "It is about 11 0'Clock, all the children, nobody has eaten. We have not seen anything. I was in Opkoroza when the thing happened. I was one of the chiefs in the village. I have never seen a place where the federal government will bring a bombing plane to a community and begin to drop bombs on top of the people. I have never heard it any where in Nigeria before."
A Nigerian Red Cross representative at the camp, Augustine Egbero, said everything was being done to meet the needs of the refugees from the meager resources available.
"Our mission is to care for the displaced persons who are in the camp. Yesterday, we were here and we gave some relief materials, food items- we gave them bread, milk, custard for the children," said Egbero. "We also gave native food called kpokpo gari. We gave two bags of rice, a bag of beans, half bag of gari, water for immediate intervention because the state we saw them, we saw them very hungry. Today again we are here to make further assessment of their needs. On coming too we made available some food items. We are still looking forward to getting things like beddings because they can't be sleeping on the bare floor."
Tens of thousands of people are said to be trapped in the creeks of the Niger Delta as the military presses on with its offensive to oust militants from the oil-rich southern region. Exhausted and destitute after days of wading through thick forest and waterways, some of the refugees who spoke to VOA said they had been separated, wives from their husbands, mothers from their children.
Patricia Okolo, 42, a mother of 10 children, says she left home with absolutely nothing and does not know the whereabouts of her children and husband. She has no money, she says.
The country's political and military leaders have made a series of statements in recent days vowing that the offensive will continue until the state regains full control of the Niger Delta. Colonel Rabe Abubakar speaks for the military task force in the region. He says the cooperation of local communities is the only way to minimize the impact of the current operation on the civilian population.
"We are not pursuing any body apart from the criminals, and we will keep on pursuing these criminals," said Abubakar. "So we are appealing to communities where such people do hide to please give us information of their hideouts so that we specifically go there and confront them, so as to get rid of them without inconveniencing any innocent citizen in this part of the country."
A vast majority of the displaced, particularly the men, are not going to the camp for fear of arrest.
Aid workers say even if the military defeats the militants quickly and people can return home soon, they will need help because most of their villages have been completely destroyed.
Since the 1970s, Nigeria has pumped more than $300 billion worth of crude from the southern delta states, according to government estimates. But high unemployment in the delta, environmental degradation due to oil and gas extraction, a lack of basic facilities such as fresh water and electricity have angered some of the region's youth and incited them to take up arms.