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Radio France Internationale
Radio France Internationale
Ngala Killian Chimtom in Yaounde

Boko Haram survivors in Cameroon share their chilling stories

Ibrahim Ngaroua gives a rare smile. He was held hostage by Boko Haram between 2017 and 2021. © Ngala Killian Chimtom

Ibrahim Ngaroua was taken hostage by Boko Haram in 2017 in the north of Cameroon, and finally escaped the terrorist group four years later. He was one survivor to recently share their harrowing experiences with students from a local peace institute.

The wind blows in all directions, hurling dusty air into Ibrahim Ngaroua’s eyes and nostrils. He frequently blows his nose to get rid of the grit.

Seated under a neem tree to shelter from the searing heat of the sun in northern Cameroon, the former Boko Haram hostage recounts the distressing story of his capture by and escape from members of the terrorist organisation.

Gathered to hear him are students from the Yaoundé-based Heritage Higher Institute of Peace and Development Studies (HHIPDS), on a field trip to the Zamai camp for internally displaced people in the Far North region of Cameroon to hear witness accounts of the conflict.

"Hundreds of Boko Haram attackers struck our village in 2017," Ngaroua recalls, as his fellow survivors listen and nod.

"They took almost everybody in the village to their camp in Nigeria," he says.

Students from the Yaoundé-based HHIPDS listen to Ngaroua's story. © Ngala Killian Chimtom

Boko Haram started attacks in Nigeria in 2009, but its murderous campaign soon spread to the neighbouring countries of Cameroon, Niger and Chad. The insurgents began their raids in Cameroon in 2014.

As of July this year, over 3,000 Cameroonians have been killed, according to the International Crisis Group. Another 250,000 have been displaced.

When Ngaroua, a 45-year old father of 12 and husband to six wives, recounts his four-year stay in the hands of his captors, the pain is palpable.

He says the women were separated from the men and everybody was forced to read the Koran.

"You couldn’t say no, because that would attract heavy punishment. Anyone who did something wrong was taken to the public square and flogged to serve as a lesson to others," he said.

Women abused

Ngaroua was a frequent witness to these public flogging sessions, and when pressed, he points to scars on his back and blisters on his soles.

"They were so painful that they made me cry," he says.

The women, he says, were compelled to wear burqas.

"They sewed burqas for the women so that they were covered from head to toe – only their eyes were visible," he says.

He adds that while the men were required to carry out all the chores – fetching water, gathering wood and doing farm work – the women weren’t allowed to go out.

They stayed at home, and many of them were used as sex slaves.

Internally displaced people at Zamai Camp in Cameroon listen to the testimony of Boko Haram survivors. © Ngala Killian Chimtom

'I just want to die'

Such accounts have been verified by local development organisation ADELPA.

The NGO quotes one anonymous victim as saying: "After having fled Boko Haram, we came here for refuge. We saw how armed men entered our village at night. They set our houses on fires and we started to run.

"All of a sudden, they captured us, tortured us and threatened to kill us. We were repeatedly raped by several men," the victim said.

"Nowadays, I just want to die. I feel like a walking cadaver. I have been rejected by my husband and by my family. I am already dead on the inside, and society looks at me differently since this has happened. I wanted to kill myself, but I told myself to pass this horrible story on to someone."

She told ADELPA she hopes speaking out can help prevent this kind of atrocity from happening again – "so that nobody after me will have to live with this kind of shame, ever again".

Child victims

Child marriages were also common.

Aminatou, a 17-year-old survivor, was married off to a Boko Haram fighter.

"I had barely turned 13 when I was forced to marry one of the fighters," she recalls.

Asked how her so-called husband treated her, Aminatou simply shook her head.

"It was a hard life," she said. "Every night was a night of painful rape. I couldn’t say no, because the subsequent beating was merciless.

"I lost my virginity in a rather ruthless manner," she told RFI.

Escaping Boko Haram

Ngaroua recalls how his family made their escape in 2021. The military raided the camp and everybody, including the Boko Haram fighters, ran in different directions.

"Either you ran along with Boko Haram, or you ran towards the military. Either way, you could be killed," he told RFI.

"My family and I took our chance with the military," he said, a faint smile sweeping his face.

"Sometimes if the military figured out that you were not armed, they let you go and that is how we were able to escape," he said.

First he and his family returned to their home in Zeleved in Cameroon’s Far North region, but they found it deserted.

"It was like a ghost village: there was no one left," Ngaroua recalls. He says he then reached out to the authorities who relocated them, along with 600 others, to the Zamai camp.

"We feel safe here," he says, "but it’s so painful to be living on the charity of others."

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