Some 56,000 of them are in Borno alone, one of three most affected states, according to the Presidential Committee on the North-East Initiative, set up to coordinate humanitarian response to the crisis across the region.
Abdullahi Asimi worked until 2013 on a project to identify OVCs, get them into school and get school authorities to waive some fees.
“Children were traumatized. Some are able to know faintly who their parents were before they died. Some did not see their fathers or mothers before death,” the public school administrator says in Yola.
He recalls visiting Hamawa Tongo Primary School in Yola town to verify whether children on his roll were really orphans.
“I called a girl, I asked ‘what’s your name?’. The name is on the list. I asked, ‘where is your mother?’. The next thing she did was to start crying. I couldn’t hold my tears. I too started crying.”
Across the region, their numbers increase daily. At a rehabilitation centre in Bulunkutu, Maiduguri is a boy named “No Name”.
When Boko Haram attacked his village, they killed his parents in plain sight. He was so traumatized, he couldn’t tell his own name.
He was treated at the Neuropsychiatric Hospital and then named Mohammed.
Ibrahim Marama counts among orphans in Adamawa state, next door to Borno. He was four when he watched his parents slaughtered by armed men who attacked his village by night.
His childhood disappeared. He isolated himself, he didn’t associate with children, he didn’t play, he didn’t eat, he didn’t talk, says a social worker who managed him in Yola, Adamawa state capital.
He was aggressive to everyone around him, and especially to children his age.
“When they try to play with him, he becomes aggressive, to the extent he would tell them, “killing somebody is not a difficult thing,” recalls Amina Muhammad, of Adamawa’s ministry of health.
Amina Muhammad works at Adamawa ministry of health
“If a child of four will know what killing a person is, you can imagine what kind of behaviour that child will grow with, the mindset he will have. You can also imagine by the time the child reaches teenage or adolescence, what kind of child he will be.”
When Boko Haram widened its stranglehold from Borno to Adamawa, two camps in Yola and another in Mubi were set up to absorb residents displaced from rural communities and streaming into cities.
Muhammad helped train social workers and coordinate psychosocial services on the camps.
Food, water and shelter are basic, and nongovernment organisations (NGOs) scramble to provide them. Some 37 international NGOs, 37 national NGOs, nine UN agencies, eight government partners and three Red Cross movement are involved in humanitarian response across Adamawa, Yobe and Damaturu.
More than half of all protection services in the humanitarian response are in Maiduguri, with only minimal presence in Damaturu and Yobe, according to data from the UN.
Social workers are few, psychologists are fewer. In the course of following this story, only two organisations were found to be currently offering psychosocial services. Others had either long since stopped for lack of funding, or planned to initiate one in future.
Children need psychosocial help, but it is inadequate. And they are no soft worries either.
“In crisis, what will be your experience—upset, distress, calamity, loss of sleep thinking where my daily bread is going to come from,” says Alexander, of Plan International Nigeria.
“It is the loss of those basic needs that cause the issue to happen. A child, when you provide those needs, some of the distress he has been going through reduces.
“But as such we should not forget one of the basic needs a child has, which cannot be seen physically—that is the psychosocial support.”
The Presidential Committee on the North-East Initiative is still drawing up framework to guide the provision of psychosocial services across the affected states of the north east.
Only a handful of organisations like Plan, United Nations Populations Fund and UNICEF have put up some semblance of psychosocial support. Plan and UNICEF's Yellow Ribbon project implemented by Neem Foundation were reached for this story. The available model uses “friendly spaces” targeting children who have been through violence of terror and girls who have survived rape.
The idea is to give them neutral spaces where they can be free of past, present and future threats. But the spaces and specialists to run them are scarce.