Mozogo, Cameroon, Apr 12 – “My life changed completely,” said 14-year-old Ina Viche, recalling the day in 2016 when her parents were killed by Boko Haram jihadists.
“While our parents were alive, we went to school. It was no longer possible when they died.”
At the age of 11, she had to find work to feed herself and her younger brother — and a new home, too, for their village in Cameroon’s Far North region was abandoned by its inhabitants after the attack.
The two orphans now live in Mozogo, a village farther from the Nigerian border, from which Boko Haram launch their murderous raids.
Ina has a long walk to the onion fields, where she works for pitifully low pay.
“I start at 8am and finish at 1pm. I am paid 600 CFA francs (0.91 euros/one dollar) per day,” she said.
“It’s very hard. We lack everything. We need a place to live in, food, clothing. My dream is to have a piece of land to grow my own crops.”
Ina and her brother are among more than 270,000 people — a UN estimate that dates from August 2016 — displaced from their homes in the Far North by the Nigerian insurgents. More than half of them, 56 percent, are children.
– Fodder for the jihad –
Young people in the Far North are victims of Boko Haram in other ways.
Kidnappings are dreaded in rural areas of this tongue-shaped projection of territory that abuts Nigeria.
Unicef said last year that Boko Haram had abducted more than 1,000 children in northeast Nigeria — including 276 girls infamously taken from their school in Chibok in 2014.
But thousands are believed to have joined the group of their own will, having nowhere else to turn as the jihadists destroy their homes, schools and families.
“Many young people in my village followed Boko Haram because they took the bait of money and the promise of eternal life,” said 16-year-old Denise Bedekui, whose birthplace in the Far North was wiped off the map by the group.
“I have friends who decided to go voluntarily. Others were forced. They (Boko Haram) appealed to them with clothes, food and jewellery. They also promised the girls motorbikes and they gave in.”
Many young people are “easily manipulated by Boko Haram” because they are “out of work and left to fend for themselves”, said Mozogo’s traditional chief, Abba Mahama Chetima.
Boko Haram, enlisting young boys, cultivates a warrior status which enables the recruit to have his own weapon, he explained.
To gain this status, the boy is made to prove his loyalty by going back to loot his home village, including their own family.
Girls are made to carry looted property or are forcibly married to jihadists, said the chief.
Once the recruit earns a weapon, he is given the status of “emir”, a leader of troops, while the youngest are often used as human shields, he said.
– Integration and support –
Cameroon is claiming progress in its fight against Boko Haram.
It says it has dismantled many of the group’s cells and some of the networks that traffic goods to sustain the fighters.
The Cameroonian and Nigerian armed forces have freed batches of civilians, including many children, during military operations against the extremists.
The government has also launched schemes aimed at integrating former Boko Haram members and supporting their child victims.
In February, the authorities announced the voluntary return of some 200 ex-radical Islamists, who were granted 11 hectares (27 acres) of land to make a fresh start.
The United Nations and local NGOs last year launched a campaign to build “resilience to extreme violence” by involving young people in farming, stock breeding and sewing.
– Farm project –
Some of these schemes are changing lives.
Bedekui, who fled the Far North village of Hondogo three years ago for fear of being kidnapped, has now settled in Mozogo and sells onions for a living.
She and six other youngsters grow and sell their produce with support from a non-governmental organisation working to keep young people out of Boko Haram’s reach.
They have been allocated around 1,000 square metres (yards) of land — about the sixth of the area of a football pitch — as well as onion seed, fertilisers and a motorised pump to draw water.
The NGO helping them has advised them not to put their produce on the market at the moment — the height of the onion harvesting season, when prices are low — but to put their harvest in storage and sell when prices rise.
The youngsters have opened an account in a micro-lending organisation, where they will place money from sales and use it to buy materials for next season.
The scheme brims with optimism but lacks resources, said one of the people in charge of it. Acquiring land is one of the biggest problems.
“The needs are enormous” yet the risk of losing more youngsters to Boko Haram is “ever present,” he said.