Cameroon: Inside Minawao, the UN camp where refugees from Boko Haram atrocities are still waiting for food, water and medicines

The UN is struggling to cope as the number of Nigerians displaced by Boko Haram increases and promised international aid does not materialise. Alistair Dawber reports from the Minawao refugee camp in northern Cameroon

Alistair Dawber
Monday 08 June 2015 01:53 BST
More than 42,000 Nigerians who have fled from the Islamist forces of Boko Haram are living in the desert camp of Minawao, under make-shift tarpaulin tents, with sparse food, water or sanitation
More than 42,000 Nigerians who have fled from the Islamist forces of Boko Haram are living in the desert camp of Minawao, under make-shift tarpaulin tents, with sparse food, water or sanitation (Ben Klib)

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.

“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.”

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