IKOM, Nigeria — The U.S. military has announced it is sending as many as 300 troops to the African nation of Cameroon, now threatened by the infamous Boko Haram group that originated in neighboring Nigeria. The aim of the Americans on what’s described as a temporary mission is to gather intelligence, operate drones, and train units of the Cameroon military to hunt down and kill Boko Haram fighters.
In concrete terms, what that means is that the Americans will be helping to hunt down and kill children who’ve been kidnapped, terrorized and turned into soldiers by a group that claims a connection to the so-called Islamic State in distant Syria and Iraq.
One such child is Patrick, who is 14 years old.
On a cold Thursday morning in February, he and about 10 other children were playing soccer in a slum in Fotokol, in Cameroon’s far north region on the border with Nigeria.
But as the kids were enjoying their game, Boko Haram militants armed with machine guns and machetes surrounded their playing field. Patrick remembers being crippled with fear as the insurgents took him and the rest of his playmates to be the latest recruits in Boko Haram’s growing army of kids.
The phenomenon is not unique to Cameroon. At least since last year, Boko Haram has abducted, recruited and deployed child soldiers in Nigeria, Chad and Niger, according to J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa Center at the Washington-based Atlantic Council. But the expansion of Boko Haram’s activities in Cameroon has been especially striking.
By June, according to the United Nations, Boko Haram had kidnapped more than 1,000—perhaps as many as 1,500—children. Mostly they were used as servants, carrying tents and fetching water. But in February some of them as young as 8 were deployed on the front lines, apparently as human shields.
I met 14-year-old Patrick at the southern Nigeria village of Abonorok, close to the border with Cameroon, where he has lived since he escaped Boko Haram, and now survives by shining shoes.
Patrick said after he was abducted he was taken along with dozens of other children into a relatively peaceful part of the country where they “were locked in cells and taught to cock and fire AK-47s.”
The abducted children had nearly two weeks of shooting practice, during which a couple of them were killed by smaller colleagues who were unable to control their weapons.
“The militants kept telling us that they wanted us to be generals, commanding different groups of fighters,” Patrick said. “They said we were going to train and lead other children to war.”
On one rare occasion where questions could be asked with regard to training methods, one boy asked the militants why they were targeting only children.
“We want you to take over from us,” came the reply.
When Patrick and four of his colleagues were sent to fetch water at a nearby stream, they escaped, walking for days without food and water.
Whenever night fell, they tied themselves to the branches of trees to sleep, for fear of being found by anyone looking for them.
Eventually they came across a truck loaded with pigs, heading to Bodam in the south. They climbed aboard and traveled for hours with the livestock until they arrived at the town bordering southern Nigeria.
The boys were too scared to remain in Cameroon, as they feared they could one day be spotted by militants and punished as deserters, so they journeyed by foot through the border with Nigeria, and eventually ended up in Abonorok, a village in Nigeria’s southern Cross River State that is home to hundreds of migrants from Cameroon.
Not all child recruits to the Boko Haram ranks have been kidnapped. Local authorities say thousands of young people in northern Cameroon, who lack access to school and employment, are fighting alongside Boko Haram.
“We don’t doubt that Boko Haram is recruiting in Cameroon,” Col. Joseph Nouma, commander of Operation ALPHA, a special military operation set up by Cameroon’s government to fight the Nigerian terrorist group, told CNN this year. “Many of them are found across the border in Nigeria, training with the terrorists.”
With the help of these kids, the Islamist group has now stepped up its attacks in the far north. In July, less than three weeks after Patrick told me Boko Haram was planning suicide attacks in the region to be carried out by children, a 12-year-old girl blew herself up in a bar, killing 20 people and injuring at least 79 in the regional capital city of Maroua, in what so far has been the most deadly suicide attack in Cameroon.
Four days before that, two girls detonated their suicide belts, killing 11 people and injuring 32 in twin attacks in the same city.
The girls, who were “under 15,” attacked the city’s central market as well as the adjoining Hausa neighborhood, regional governor Midjiyawa Bakari said.
Two young female suicide bombers wearing the full Islamic veil blew themselves up in Fotokol, killing 10 civilians and a soldier from neighboring Chad, leading regional authorities to impose a ban on full-face veils.
Boko Haram’s most recent attack was carried out on Sunday when twin suicide blasts killed at least nine people and injured 29 in the far north, at a tiny milk and doughnut restaurant in the village of Kangaleri. The bombers were believed to be teenage girls.
That incident may have helped precipitate the U.S. government announcement that it would deploy up to 300 military personnel to Cameroon for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations against the insurgents.
Cameroon’s own elite force, the Rapid Response Brigade, known by its French acronym as the BIR, has recently moved north in response to Boko Haram’s activities. But the group that trained heavily for amphibious assaults is operating in a part of the country with little water, and was never trained for a longstanding battle against a ferocious terror group. “We are not dealing with a battle-hardened military,” says Pham at the Atlantic Council
Boko Haram attacks in Cameroon have so far been restricted to the far north, a predominantly Muslim region which analysts say has historically been marginalized. About 20 percent of the 22 million people living in Cameroon are Muslim.”
Patrick, who is Christian, said Boko Haram does not take religion into consideration when it carries out its recruitment, but forces non-Muslims to convert to Islam, and punishes girls who do not wear full-face veils.
Although the boys who talked to The Daily Beast were forcibly recruited into Boko Haram’s fold, there are other factors that drive children into the group.
The sect is using economic incentives to persuade unemployed young people and former students to join its ranks. Underemployment in Cameroon is at least 75 percent. In the far north region, 60 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the government’s 2010 National Population and Housing Census.
“Boko Haram men came and told us to stop wasting our lives here and join them in the holy battle to save our faith and the lives of our families, who are living in abject poverty here,” 21-year-old Moustapha Alidu, who used to live in a border village outside of Kolofata, recently told the humanitarin news agency IRIN.
Alidu, who fled his home after declining Boko Haram’s offer, said he believes that those who willingly join the group are “ignorant,” but that the propositions made by the sect are tempting.
He said Boko Haram promised to pay him between 300,000 and 400,000 CFA (US$600-US$800) each month to become a fighter. By contrast, for those lucky enough to be employed at all, the monthly minimum wage is just 36,000 CFA (US$72).
As the insurgency continues, the demand for military manpower increases, and children are often targeted in a country where nearly half the population is under 18.
And the humanitarian fear is that both Boko Haram and the military, with a long record of human-rights violations, will claim more of Cameroon’s young lives.
— Nancy Youssef reported from Washington, D.C.