Dozens of Nigerians have died while fleeing violent conflicts in Taraba State. Hundreds are critically ill but medical staff in Cameroon are running out of supplies. Moki Kindzeka reports from the border region.
About 7,000 Nigerians fleeing violent conflicts between the Christian Mambilas and Fulani Muslim herdsmen in Taraba State now find themselves in a precarious situation in the Cameroonian border villages which have taken them in.
Local officials of the Cameroon Red Cross attending to the health and psychological needs of these refugees at the Atta Catholic Health Center told DW that women and children constitute the majority of the new arrivals. They say the center is running short of medication to treat the wounded.
"We did our best but we are running short of supplies. If the state does not come immediately to replace our stock of medication or pay the medical bills of these refugees, we will have serious problems and may not be able to treat villagers," said Jean Marie Kou, the medical officer at the center.
Bello Dewa Oumar, a 53-year-old who escaped from the Nigerian village of Bamga in Gembu local government area, recounted his ordeal, saying the Mambila people wanted to wipe the Fulanis off Jos Plateau entirely. "Wipe off simply means to kill everybody and their cows. The only place that is safe in the whole of Mambila is only Taraba State, close to the border separating Nigeria and Cameroon. I narrowly escaped," Oumar said, adding that Mambila militias were trailing the Fulanis as they made their way to Cameroon. Oumar managed to shake them off. "I had to follow some bush roads, some narrow roads that I did not even think in my life I will follow, before coming to this place," he said.
Commotion over cattle
The refugees took with them around 2,000 cattle, some of which were seized by thieves on Cameroonian territory who demanded between 10 and 25 cows before allowing their owners to cross the border, Oumar said.
In addition, conflicts ensued between the refugees and their host communities over land, with local farmers reportedly complaining that the cattle from Nigeria were destroying their crops.
Justin Moonchild, the most senior Cameroon government official in the area, said he had ordered all border schools to be opened for the refugees, while the cattle are kept where they cannot cause damage. "We have instructed all traditional rulers to receive [these people] for humanitarian reasons. I noticed that children were very vulnerable and instructed medical staff to vaccinate them against polio and treat them of all illnesses," Moonchild said.
Moonchild further said he had instructed other officials to make sure that all the cows were vaccinated, to prevent them from contaminating others, as 15 percent of them seemed traumatized or wounded.
Nigeria's Taraba State has over 80 ethnic groups, divided between the two major religions, Islam and Christianity. It is a permanent hotspot of ethno-religious conflict, characterized by violent attacks.
Last month, Nigerian media reported that several Fulani villages were invaded by some ethnic militiamen, who left behind blood and anguish. The government of Nigeria said the attacks had nothing to do with religious conflicts.
A similar incident occurred in 2002, when about 30,000 Nigerian refugees, comprised of Muslim herdsmen of the Fulani tribe, fled from Taraba State to Cameroon after clashes with the Mambila community.Three years later, in 2005, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) launched a repatriation exercise, but less than half the Fulani returned to Nigeria, while around 17,000 remained in Cameroon.