FOR most of us, the Islamist group Boko Haram, whose insurgency has left a trail of destruction across large swaths of Western Africa, is mercifully a far-away horror, relegated to the safe distance of a newspaper headline or television report.
But for Fati, Abdoul Raouf, Talatu, and millions like them in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria, Boko Haram is a nightmarish everyday reality.
“One day, two men followed my cousin and me all the way home,” says 15-year-old Fati, who is from Goulak in Nigeria, a stone’s throw from the far northern Cameroonian border.
“The men came into our house and told my parents that they wanted to marry my cousin and me. These men were Boko Haram. They carried guns.”
“We tried to tell them we were too young to marry,” she says. But faced with weapons, Fati and her cousin had no choice but to follow along with the men.
Fati was forced into marriage with the adult Boko Haram fighter, and for more than a year was kept against her will, raped, chased and shot at by soldiers and even fighter jets, living in fear, and unsure when she would ever see her family again. She said throughout her time in captivity she met many girls who were abducted by Boko Haram, including those from Chibok.
“Boko Haram wanted us girls to do suicide attacks, and many wanted to,” she remembers.
“Because they wanted to go to the army and have them remove the belts. That way they would escape.”
But Fati never volunteered. Fortunately.
The use of children, especially girls, by Boko Haram as “suicide” bombers has increased sharply in Nigeria and Cameroon in recent months, according to UNICEF estimates. In fact, between January 2014 and February 2016, Cameroon recorded the highest number of “suicide” attacks involving children (21), followed by Nigeria (17) and Chad (2). And some explosive charges are detonated by remote control.
After 13 months of what can only be described as a horrific existence, Fati and her “husband” were captured in far northern Cameroon. He was imprisoned, and Fati was sent to the Minawao refugee camp, where she has been living ever since with a foster family.
But that may soon be coming to an end. Fati was recently reunited with her mother, who was traced thanks to UNICEF and Aldepa, a local NGO, and will soon be returning home - to what’s left of her former life.
(Fati hugs her mother)
“My father became sick when I was away, and died,” says Fati, clutching the gold bracelets she says were a gift from him, tears streaming down her face. “I will never see him again.”
Talatu also lives in camp Minawao, and, like Fati, is a Nigerian refugee fleeing the horrors of Boko Haram, but she was lucky enough to have been spared most of Fati’s terrifying fate.
Wearing a blue school uniform and her hair in a neat, high bun, she skips through the camp as friends greet her, calling her name and waving at her. Her current home may be the same sizzling, bustling, parched refugee camp of 56,000 and counting, but Talatu remains a positive, fairly carefree schoolgirl of 12 summers, with pretty handwriting and dreams of becoming a doctor, or teacher like her mother Mary.
Which is not to say that Talatu or her family have not had harrowing experiences. Talatu’s uncle and aunt were both killed by Boko Haram.
Loss and trauma are a common reality for most everyone in camp Minawao.
Talatu’s mother, Mary, says she does her best to keep life as normal as possible for her children. She was a teacher back home, and works as a teacher in the camp’s elementary school, which Talatu also attends.
Both Talatu’s parents are dressed impeccably and speak a polished English. They greet visitors graciously. But the stress of their reality is not easy to conceal.
“This is not a life,” Mary says, almost apologetically. “I just want to take my family home.”
But for now, as the conflict wages on, there is no return for Nigerian refugees, who keep trickling into the camp.
About 60 kilometers north of camp Minawao as the crow flies, Dieudonné Djémégued, the principal at Baigai elementary school, is shaking his head in consternation.
“This is a very poor community of farmers who struggle to keep their own families fed,” he says. “When you add 5 more mouths to feed, of course there will be problems.”
Djémégued is referring to the large number of internally displaced Cameroonians, more than 120,000 so far, who have sought shelter with relatives or friends since the conflict began a couple of years ago. In the Baigai school alone, 1 in 4 is displaced, of around 1200. There are 10 schools in the Far North province in Cameroon that have welcomed children fleeing the Boko Haram conflict.
“These children are traumatised,” says Djémégued, the school principal. “When they arrive, they are quiet and lost, some cry. With the teachers, we work every day to bring them back into the fold.”
One of them is Abdoul Raouf, 10. He is not only displaced, he also arrived in the village, unaccompanied by parents or any family member.
“Even us adults still need our parents,” says Djémégued. “You can imagine how it must be for a child.”
But from looking at Abdoul Raouf, one would be forgiven to believe he was just another cheerful kid. Smiles come easy to Abdoul Raouf, and they seem genuinely happy.
“He is always like this,” says Yahya Is-Haga, a social worker with Aldepa, a UNICEF-supported local NGO. Abdoul Raouf’s case was assigned to Yahya about 8 months ago, and he has been working with him ever since, visiting him regularly in school and at home, making sure he is adapting as best he can to a new foster family, school, a whole new life.
“He is doing okay, considering the circumstances,” says Yahya, whose organisation works with many children like Abdoul Raouf in the province. “I think he will be reunited with his family one day.”