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Stranded in a refugee camp

Moki Edwin Kindzeka / guFebruary 23, 2015

Every day people from Nigeria's restive northeast flee over the border into Cameroon. The Minawao refugee camp on the Cameroonian side is bursting at the seams. DW's Moki Kindzeka met some of its residents.

Flüchtlingslager Minawao in Kamerun
Image: DW/M.-E. Kindzeka

At Minawao refugee camp in northern Cameroon, UN staff are busy registering new arrivals. Refugees who cross the border in search of safety arrive at this camp, where they join over 30,000 others who fled the insurgency in Nigeria's northeastern states.

Most of the refugees started to come to the Minawao camp when Chadian, Cameroonian and Nigerian forces attacked Gambaru, Boko Haram's stronghold in Nigeria's Borno state, in early February.

Forty-one-year old Muhamadou Ousman, who comes from a family of 14, told DW that he lost all of his brothers when they refused to join Boko Haram.

"Boko Haram will come and attack you," Muhamadou Ousman said, describing how the militants went about recruiting people. "Can you join us? When you say no, they will kill you." Like many other refugees here, he fears for those he had to leave behind. "My mother just advised me to go," he recounted.

Muhamadou Ousman is a Muslim. He now shares a hut with Elias Yega, a Catholic Christian. Yega is uncomfortable with this. He says that before he left Nigeria a week ago, he was tortured by people who claimed to be Muslims.

"They combine us both, Muslims and Christians," he told DW. "But sometimes we get problems because we call them Boko Haram. They arrest them and take them to security agents here." Last week, Cameroonian forces arrested hundreds of refugees on suspicion that they were Boko Haram fighters who had infiltrated the camp.

Flüchtlingslager Minawao in Kamerun
A humanitarian crisis looms as more people arrive on a daily basisImage: DW/M.-E. Kindzeka

Living in unbearable conditions

Mouhaman Boukar, a cattle rancher who fled from Yerwa in the Nigerian state of Borno, said he was thankful to God for saving his life from the insurgents. The increasing number of Nigerians in the refugee camp, however, was making living conditions unbearable.

The refugees not only lacked water and toilets: "For about 15 days we have not received any food. All of us are hungry," he added. "Unfortunately, day by day more people are coming."

Najat Rochdi, a coordinator of UN operations in Cameroon, says that with the influx of refugees and the displacement of Cameroonians on the border with Nigeria, where Boko Haram attacks have intensified in recent weeks, a humanitarian crisis is now looming.

"With the help of Cameroon's military and local authorities, we are about to transfer 5,500 refugees from Kolofata to Minawao," she says. "We intend to transfer between 750 and 1 000 per day."

No return to Nigeria in sight

Flüchtlingslager Minawao in Kamerun
Hundreds of refugee tents lined up in across an utterly barren landscapeImage: DW/M.-E. Kindzeka

According to DW's Nigeria correspondent, Muhammad al-Amin, Nigerians displaced from their villages and towns have shown a reluctance to return home. They are wary of statements by Nigeria's military due to negative experience in the past. "The military would give them assurances … and at midnight Boko Haram would attack them," al-Amin said. "So they are not thinking of going back to their localities in the near future."

As Cameroon and the UN battle to attend to the growing needs of the displaced persons and refugees, many Nigerian kids, who make up the majority of the camp's refugees, say they want to get an education – something the militant group in their own country would deny them.

Nine-year-old Bejigele James, who has been enrolled in a class at the camp, said he was nostalgic about his country Nigeria and missed the education he had in his home town of Yerwa. He told DW that once Boko Haram gave peace a chance, he would return to Nigeria.

Boko Haram insurgency, which escalated in 2013, has left more than 13,000 people dead. The African Union has now pledged to send a regional force into the affected territories.