In a visit to Cameroon’s sprawling Minawao camp, home to around 40,000 Nigerian refugees, James Schneider hears the personal stories of people forced from their homes and their country by Boko Haram violence.
Mousa Youssoufou has been in Minawao since 13 July 2014. The 42-year-old came here with his family from the small town of Altagara, in Gwoza LGA, close to the Cameroonian border. At Minawao, he is the officer for his block, one of 29 in the camp.
In Nigeria, he was in the self-defence, vigilante force that protected communities from Boko Haram attack known as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF). He fought Boko Haram with bows and arrows and some rudimentary homemade rifles. He says he killed many Boko Haram fighters. “We tried our best,” he says matter-of-factly. When Boko Haram attacked Altagara, Youssoufou and the rest of the town’s CJTF fought them for three days. Boko Haram killed 75 people in the town and burned down many houses. Youssoufou is angry with the Nigerian army “because they are meant to be our protectors”.
When the CJTF realised a Boko Haram attack was imminent, they went to the army and asked for help. He says, “They refused to come and help,” telling the CJTF fighters to protect themselves.
He is impressed with the Cameroonian fight against Boko Haram, saying, “Cameroon fights Boko Haram truly.” He has some knowledge of the successes of the Chadian and Nigerian militaries in dislodging Boko Haram from Borno’s towns. However, his distrust of the Nigerian army has not gone away. He wants to go home but must “think very hard,” before doing so.
Saratu John is from Arboko, a village inhabited by a small Christian minority group in Gwoza LGA. The village has been attacked a number of times by Boko Haram. She and her family had left and moved to a mixed village, with many Kanuri, close to the Borno State capital, Maiduguri.
Around a year ago, Boko Haram militants surrounded her house. They told her husband, John, that he was a pagan because he was a Christian. “How many years have you lived here and never converted to Islam?” they challenged him. John told them that he had lived there for more than 40 years and had become an indigene. John told them he was “just a farmer who didn’t fight anyone”.
The militants told him again that he was a pagan, told him they would kill him and demanded to know where he kept his money. “They took a rope, strung him up and cut off his head,” Saratu says. She and her children ran away and ended up at Minawao. She was pregnant when Boko Haram attacked; she lost the baby.
Life is very difficult for her and her five daughters and one son in the camp. The children go to school but, she says, “nobody helps.” She has “no husband and no assistance from anyone”. She is the only member of her community in the camp, which “makes it more difficult.”
Abbakura Umaru is from Bama LGA. He says he fled violence meted out on his community by the army. It happened after a battle in his town between Boko Haram and the army, in which fighters from both sides were killed. Possibly in retaliation for the soldiers’ deaths, “the military set fire to everybody’s houses,” says Umaru. “When people rushed out of [their burning] houses…the Nigerian army would shoot [them],” if they were male. Women and children were allowed to flee. Umaru “dressed as a woman…and ran with them” to escape.
Umaru says that the army then set fire to a mosque and killed more people. “After that,” he says, “they took a lot of people away in lorries… it is not known where they are [now] – whether they have been killed, whether they are in jail, alive or not.”
In June, Amnesty International released a report detailing alleged war crimes committed by the Nigerian military in the fight against Boko Haram. The military denounced the report, but President Muhammadu Buhari promised to investigate.
Baba Shehu Makinta
Baba Shehu Makinta was one of the early arrivals at Minawao back in 2013 and has seen it grow. He came with three other members of his family from Bama, in Borno State, where he was an accountant. Boko Haram burned down his house, he suspects, because he is educated.
This article is part of a five part series on Cameroon’s battle against Boko Haram, written by New African senior correspondent James Schneider. For the other articles in the series, click the links below.