MINAWAO (AFP) – Alima fled fighting between Nigeria’s army and the radical Islamist movement Boko Haram 10 days ago for neighbouring Cameroon, where she has joined thousands of refugees who feel abandoned by their homeland.
“The only solution was to leave,” the 31-year-old said as she ground maize flour for the evening meal in the courtyard of the Minawao refugee camp in the far north of Cameroon, close to the Nigerian border.
“Here, there is no kudi (money in the Kanuri language), but it’s better compared with Nigeria,” adds Alima, who fled from Bama, where the Nigerian army is engaged in repeated attacks on the armed sect.
As a Kanuri, Alima belongs to the dominant ethnic group in northeast Nigeria, as do most members of Boko Haram, which has attacked isolated villages, schools and churches as well as military bases in a brutal campaign.
Confronted with the violent insurrection, Nigerian troops launched a major crackdown in May 2013 against Boko Haram, which wants to create a separate hardline Islamic state in northern Nigeria.
The conflict has claimed thousands of lives since the uprising began in 2009 and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee in fear either to other Nigerian states or neighbouring countries.
- ‘A heavy price’ -
The state of emergency in three northeast states has largely succeeded in forcing militants out of urban areas but attacks have continued in remoter, rural areas.
The government’s response has alarmed human rights organisations as much as atrocities by the Islamists.
Amnesty International charged Monday that both the army and Boko Haram may have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity.
“Civilians are paying a heavy price as the cycle of violations and reprisals gather momentum,” Amnesty said, urging the international community to “ensure prompt, independent investigations” into alleged atrocities.
Alima told AFP that “it was the weapons of the army that made me flee. The situation was bad.”
The United Nations has said that some 300,000 people have fled the northeastern states of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa since the start of emergency rule in May to January 1.
Last week, Nigeria’s emergency relief agency NEMA said nearly 250,000 had been internally displaced in the first three months of this year alone.
Regional Cameroonian authorities say that no fewer than 30,000 Nigerians have fled over the border to the far north of the country in the past year.
At the Minawao camp, set in mountainous territory about 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the regional capital Maroua, the number of new arrivals has grown in recent weeks, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
The camp currently houses about 2,500 people, Christians and Muslims alike. But the UNHCR also says that thousands more refugees have been taken in by Cameroonian families or subsist in the countryside.
Inside the camp, youths have begun digging up mounds of earth in order to build solid clay huts, instead of makeshift shelters under canvas or plastic sheeting.
Mohamed Oumarou, a tailor, had a sewing machine to stitch a tarpaulin roof to cover his new house. “The (Nigerian) army burned and looted our homes. The conflict between the soldiers and Boko Haram is raging in our country,” he said.
“I am confused. I can’t tell you whether or not I will go back to my country,” Oumarou added bitterly.
- ‘We want Cameroonian nationality’ -
Many others gathered nearby claimed the Nigerian authorities were indifferent to the fate of civilians in the conflict, which has claimed more than 1,500 lives in the first three months of the year, according to Amnesty.
A Muslim leader at Minawao, Bolama (“Chief”) Mohamed, complained that food was lacking for those who have fled.
“Food … runs out 10 days before the next distribution. There is neither rice nor sugar and many children don’t go to school in the morning because they haven’t had their gruel.”
“They get sufficient supplies to live normally,” countered the UNHCR chief in Maroua, Jean-Marie Awono. He pointed out that food is distributed once a month, while the camp has two water pumps, a health centre and a school consisting of 11 buildings.
“Some children don’t go to school because their families consider that the school is ‘haram’ (forbidden),” Awono said. Moreover, in the Hausa language, Boko Haram loosely translates as “Western education is a sin” and has attacked schools, killing students and teachers.
“We are in a difficult situation, but our government remains indifferent,” said Ali Shouek, chairman of the camp community of refugees.
“A delegation from the (Nigerian) embassy came here once, but we’ve had no news since.”
“Because our president and our authorities no longer recognise us and don’t value our worth, we would like to obtain Cameroonian nationality,” Shouek added.
NEMA has said that 1.5 million displaced people in Nigeria needed immediate help, with pressure on provision of water, food and shelter.
Those who fled across the border are prepared to take their chances in Cameroon rather than return.