The villagers made bows and arrows and makeshift rifles. And then they waited to be slaughtered.
Mussa Youssef and his friends knew that Boko Haram was going to raid his village of Attagara in northern Nigeria last June. The well-equipped Nigerian military, which is supposed to be fighting the militant Islamist group, was nearby, says Mr Youssef, but when he and the other villagers begged for help, the army refused. “Protect yourselves,” the commander told them.
Boko Haram, which has sworn allegiance to Isis, is just as dedicated to jihad in Nigeria as the Islamists are in the Middle East, and has raped and murdered its way across remote parts of the north of the country, seemingly with impunity. Like Isis, it wants to create a radical Islamist nation; it beheads hostages, destroys villages and has created tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of refugees in the area.
Mr Youssef and the villagers in Attagara fought hard for three days with their hopeless weapons. In the end, Boko Haram killed 75 of them, torching all the houses, and made refugees of the survivors.
“They had AK47s, grenades, machine guns and semi-automatic weapons – they looked like the Nigerian army because of the weapons they had,” says Mr Youssef.
Mr Youssef and his family fled to the Cameroonian border. They eventually made their way to Minawao, a dusty, sprawling refugee camp in Cameroon’s extreme north, 56 miles from the Nigerian border. The camp is already officially home to 42,000 refugees, although those in the camp guess that the real number is higher by as much as 10,000. In the last two weeks of May, another 4,800 people arrived.
The Independent is the first British newspaper to gain unaccompanied access to the desert camp. At 8am, it is already stiflingly hot, and during the day temperatures rise to well in excess of 40C.
Everybody lives in tarpaulin shelters and they all complain that they are not getting enough food and water.
The rise of Boko Haram
The rise of Boko Haram
1/19 Boko Haram
The leader of the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram Abubakar Shekau delivers a message. Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for the mass killings in the north-east Nigerian town of Baga in a video where he warned the massacre “was just the tip of the iceberg”. As many as 2,000 civilians were killed and 3,700 homes and business were destroyed in the 3 January 2015 attack on the town near Nigeria's border with Cameroon
2/19 Boko Haram
People displaced as a result of Boko Haram attacks in the northeast region of Nigeria, are seen near their tents at a faith-based camp for internally displaced people (IDP) in Yola, Adamawa State. Boko Haram says it is building an Islamic state that will revive the glory days of northern Nigeria's medieval Muslim empires, but for those in its territory life is a litany of killings, kidnappings, hunger and economic collapse
3/19 Boko Haram
Nitsch Eberhard Robert, a German citizen abducted and held hostage by suspected Boko Haram militants, is seen as he arrives at the Yaounde Nsimalen International airport after his release in Yaounde, Cameroon on 21 January 2015
4/19 Boko Haram
Officials of the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) visit victims of a bomb blast in Gombe at the Specialist Hospital in Gombe. According to local reports at least six people were killed and 11 wounded after a bomb blast in a marketplace in Nigeria's northeastern state of Gombe on 16 January 2015. Islamist militant group Boko Haram has been blamed for a string of recent attacks in the North East of Nigeria
5/19 Boko Haram
People gather at the site of a bomb explosion in a area know to be targeted by the militant group Boko Haram in Kano on 28 November 2014
6/19 Boko Haram
People gather to look at a burnt vehicle following a bomb explosion that rocked the busiest roundabout near the crowded Market in Maiduguri, Borno State on 1 July 2014. A truck exploded in a huge fireball killing at least 15 people in the northeast Nigerian city of Maiduguri, the city repeatedly hit by Boko Haram Islamists
7/19 Boko Haram
President Goodluck Jonathan visits Nigerian Army soldiers fighting Boko Haram
8/19 Boko Haram
Displaced people from Baga listen to Goodluck Jonathan after the Boko Haram killings
9/19 Boko Haram
Nigeria's President Goodluck Jonathan speaking to troops during a visit to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State; most of the region has been overrun by Boko Haram
10/19 Boko Haram
Members of the Nigerian military patrolling in Maiduguri, North East Nigeria, close to the scene of attacks by Boko Haram
11/19 Boko Haram
Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, appears in a video in which he warns Cameroon it faces the same fate as Nigeria
12/19 Boko Haram
South Africans protest in solidarity against the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls in Nigeria by the Muslim extremist group Boko Haram and what protesters said was the failure of the Nigerian government and international community to rescue them, during a march to the Nigerian Consulate in Johannesburg
13/19 Boko Haram
Boko Haram militants have seized the town in north-eastern Nigeria that nearly 300 schoolgirls were kidnapped from in April 2014
14/19 Boko Haram
A soldier stands guard in front of burnt buses after an attack in Abuja. Twin blasts at a bus station packed with morning commuters on the outskirts of Nigeria's capital killed dozens of people, in what appeared to be the latest attack by Boko Haram Islamists, April 2014
15/19 Boko Haram
The aftermath of the attack, when Boko Haram fighters in trucks painted in military colours killed 51 people in Konduga in February 2014
16/19 Boko Haram
The leader of Boko Haram, Abubakar Shekau (with papers) in a video grab taken in July 2014
17/19 Boko Haram
Ruins of burnt out houses in the north-eastern settlement of Baga, pictured after Boko Haram attacks in 2013
18/19 Boko Haram
A Boko Haram attack in Nigeria, 2013
19/19 Boko Haram
Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader
“We are all very grateful to the UN for this camp, but the reality is that we are lacking food,” says Rabagara Mohammed, who has lived there for two years. “Nobody is listening to what we need. The UN comes in with the army so we don’t get the chance to question them, or to complain. We keep being told that food, water and medicines are coming, but they don’t.”
Within 30 minutes of my arrival, people are lining up to describe how long it is since they had adequate supplies. Babasheau Mackinta, an accountant who was forced to flee his village in the Bama region of Nigeria after a Boko Haram attack, says that the camp is quickly filling up.
“When I arrived in June 2013, there were no more than 12,000 people here,” he says. “Now there are shortages of everything. We’re lacking food and water – we’ve been short of things for two months now. We keep being told that it will arrive and be distributed, but it never does.
“It’s dangerous. The rainy season is coming and people are still shitting in the fields. The water smells and there is a risk of disease. We’re begging the UN to help – of course, we’re very grateful for what they’ve done but we’re begging them to help.”
The UNHCR, the agency responsible for Minawao, concedes that there are shortages at the camp. Nasir Abel Fernandes, the senior emergency co-ordinator, says that water is a particular problem. “Water is quite tricky here because we have 32 boreholes – there are limits, it doesn’t reach out very quickly,” he says.
“In terms of funding, we have a lot of pledges but the contributions are not yet coming through. It comes in bits.”
In a statement released a few days later, a UNHCR spokesperson said that its funding requirement for this year in Cameroon, which as well as taking refugees in the north from Nigeria, is also hosting 240,000 people from the fighting in Central African Republic to the east, stands at almost $81m (£53m). So far international donors have paid just $6m, a pitiful 8 per cent.
But perhaps Cameroon should consider itself lucky. Neighbouring Chad, which has also taken in thousands of Nigerian refugees, and like Cameroon has deployed troops to fight Boko Haram, has received just 3 per cent of what the UNHCR says is needed this year.
All the people in the camp have fled from Boko Haram, and all have desperate stories. “They attacked my town at night and we ran away, but lost two of our children when we fled,” says Ashigar Mohammed, who is from Nigeria’s Borno state and has been in Minawao for the past 19 months. “I’ve heard they are still alive and believe that they are still in Nigeria, but I don’t really know.”
Among the worst off are the women who are alone in the camp, those like Sarahit John. “They [Boko Haram] came at midnight and surrounded the house and asked my husband, ‘Why is your wife a pagan’ – a Christian,” she says.
“We told them that we had no fight with them, we were just farmers. But they wanted money and then they tied up my husband and beheaded him. I was hidden by a neighbour. My neighbour’s daughter went to the military but they never came,” she says. “I had eight children but two of them are dead.”
Those in Minawao are anticipating being there for a long time and Unicef has opened schools. Since November last year, 580 children have been born in the camp, according to Mr Youssef, a figure the UNHCR does not dispute. But the question is what will become of these children and the growing thousands at Minawao.
The Cameroon military has had notable successes in the past 12 months, pushing Boko Haram back into Nigerian territory. The Chadians have made similar gains.
But in recent days Boko Haram has redoubled its attacks in north-eastern Nigeria, killing scores in response to the inauguration of Nigeria’s new President, Muhammadu Buhari. The likely result is more people fleeing to Minawao.
Joseph Naga, a Catholic priest who fled Boko Haram from his home in Gwoza across the border, has become a preacher at the camp.
Like the others he insists that one day he wants to go home. “In order to go home, Boko Haram must be eradicated. If we went back to Nigeria and Boko Haram returned, we would soon be back in Cameroon. But I want to go back. After all, there is no better place than home.”Reuse content