Nigerian government forces have reportedly been making progress in their campaign against Boko Haram, winning back villages from the Islamic militant group in recent weeks. But there has been spillover into neighboring Cameroon, with increased incursions by fleeing extremists.
GWEN IFILL: Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News was given rare access to the special forces in that country, as they struggle to keep Boko Haram at bay.
LINDSEY HILSUM: We’re on our way towards the border with Nigeria, speeding along in a Cameroonian military convoy. The villages are ever more remote, the land parched and rocky. We’re driving through territory Boko Haram wants to occupy, past people they want to rule.
The troops are here for our protection, because, in Boko Haram’s eyes, foreigners are valuable commodities for kidnap. We’re going to a remote outpost, where there was fighting this very morning. We’re very near the border now, just where the incursions by Boko Haram and the clashes are happening all the time. I’m with the rapid reaction force, the elite of the Cameroonian army, trained by the Israelis and well-armed.
They have borne the brunt of these battles with Boko Haram, but they haven’t won yet. The outpost at Zelevet is less than half-a-kilometer from the border. Now the Nigerian army has started to flush them out of the forests beyond, Boko Haram is hiding in mountain caves and raiding into Cameroon more frequently. They ambushed a patrol last Saturday.
LT. MAXIM CLEMONT EBO’O, Outpost Commander (through interpreter): We were shot at from just over there. We returned fire. And at the end of this contact, we counted our casualties: two dead and four injured, including one civilian.
LINDSEY HILSUM: Amongst the injured now in the military hospital, the platoon commander. He was expecting this.
ETIENNE FABASSOU, Platoon Commander (through interpreter): They had already left a letter with a bullet in it at our base, 200 meters inside our borders. It was a threat that they would attack.
LINDSEY HILSUM: The next day, we’re in another convoy, even more heavily armed for our protection. We’re heading to Bia, a border village that was attacked by Boko Haram last month.
As we arrive, the villagers line the route. They’re used to daily military patrols now. They know the soldiers will gather them together under the trees in the village center. The women sit separately. They tell me Boko Haram killed 10 people and kidnapped three girls in the raid.
WOMAN (through interpreter): We were sleeping when they came. It was midnight. Suddenly, we heard gunfire, so we woke up. Mothers gathered up their babies and ran. So did the men. They set fire to houses and all our belongings were burnt. We have nothing left, absolutely nothing.
LINDSEY HILSUM: The people of Bia are from the Kanuri tribe which straddles the border. Most Boko Haram fighters are Kanuris, and some boys from this village have been recruited. Village elders say they’re caught between the two sides, and that’s why they were attacked.
BOULAMA MODI, Village Elder (through interpreter): The soldiers said there were Boko Haram in this village, but we said no. Then they said, if you catch one, you must hand him over to us, and if you refuse, we will do exactly the same to you as we would to him. The military threatened us.
LINDSEY HILSUM: Soldiers patrol the village. Under pressure, the villagers did indeed turn over a local boy who had joined Boko Haram. And the April attack was the jihadis’ revenge.
Boukar Malloum shows me his compound. Two of his relatives were burnt alive, he says. Boko Haram set fire only to the houses of those who refused to collaborate with them. They had intelligence. They knew which houses to target. The soldiers say that proves that some here are acting as informers, and they will already have called Boko Haram by mobile to tell them of our presence. They don’t trust the villagers, their enemy’s kinsmen.
LT. YARI EMMANUEL, Rapid Reaction Force: They’re brothers and sisters, children, others, all the like, people of the same family. It’s not easy for somebody to give up a brother or sister, even if it’s the devil.
LINDSEY HILSUM: Our last journey, to Minawao, the refugee camp where 35,000 Nigerians have fled. In the last two weeks, they have registered another 2,000. Those who’ve been here for a year or more suspect that the new arrivals are family members of Boko Haram fighters suddenly under pressure from the Nigerian army. Their proof? The newcomers are vague about their origins, and they have wiped the SIM cards on their phones.
Since the beginning of this year, the Cameroonian army has brought a modicum of peace. Kidnapping and killing has decreased. But until Nigerian forces take full control of Boko Haram areas, people in Cameroon’s far north will never feel safe from the men in caves across the border.