Seconds after glimpsing Boko Haram gunmen leap out of vehicles brandishing weapons in the town of Rann, Nigeria, Abdul, 45, rushed inside the medical clinic where he worked.
Raising his eyes up to the ceiling, it seemed as if he was about to murmur a prayer.
Instead, he clambered atop a plastic worktable and hoisted himself inside a narrow concealed opening just below the roof.
“I hid there for hours,” said Abdul, one of more than 35,000 Nigerians who fled Rann for Cameroon.
He described the shooting he heard outside while militants shouted: “we are the agents of Jihad!”
Later, after he began to smell burning and realized the clinic had also been set on fire, he shed his clothes, punched his way through the roof and rolled off into the grass, lying low until he could gather some belongings and flee.
Last week, Abdul, who works for international aid group Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and did not want to reveal his real name for safety reasons, escaped to Cameroon’s Far North region in search of safety.
Forced back to danger
Nigerians have been sheltering in Cameroon for years, on the run from the Islamist militant group Boko Haram.
Following Boko Haram’s previous attack on Rann on January 14th, about 9,000 refugees crossed the border.
Yet, almost all of them were forced to return by the Cameroonian military, according to the U.N.’s refugee agency.
The Cameroonian government could not be reached for comment, but when asked last week about the forced deportations the governor of the Far North region denied they took place.
The numbers of those deported – a violation of international law – has increased more than six times compared to 2018 according to U.N. figures.
“This action was totally unexpected and puts lives of thousands of refugees at risk,” U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said in a statement.
The latest attack on Rann, on Jan. 28, was termed “the deadliest yet” by Amnesty International, which confirmed that at least 60 people were killed and hundreds of buildings burned in and around the surrounding area.
“The corpses were lying on the streets in the town,” Abdul told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that many people did not stay long enough to bury them, fearing another attack.
But once in Goura, many Nigerians worried that they may once again be forced to return.
“We are afraid to go back there,” said one Nigerian who did not reveal his name but spoke on behalf of a community from Rann addressing a delegation from the United Nations visiting Goura.
“Some of us have moved five times – and this time, we will stay longer,” he said, adding that most of the population of Rann was made up of Nigerians who had been forced to flee their homes multiple times in recent years.
“Our request to the Cameroonian government and the humanitarians is this: we are under the sun, we have no shelter, we don’t have enough to eat, we don’t have water, we don’t have latrines,” he said.
Safety in Cameroon’s poorest region
Life in Goura, a small Cameroonian village of several thousand inhabitants dotted with crumbling huts made of mud and straw, is not easy even in the best of times.
In the most populated yet poorest of Cameroon’s 10 regions, the arid landscape of the Far North is vastly undeveloped, with almost no infrastructure, chronic desertification and widespread poverty.
Even prior to the Boko Haram conflict, three-quarters of the population lived below the poverty line, the International Crisis Group noted.
Even the region’s principal road, an artery linking Cameroon to Nigeria and Chad, is in a state of crumbling disrepair, covered by sand and full of potholes.
Since Boko Haram’s first attacks in Cameroon in March 2014, more than 1,500 people have been killed, prompting almost a quarter of a million to flee their homes.
JOURNEY TO NOWHERE
Last week, Nigerian refugees continued arrived in a continuous stream of people.
Many carried mattresses on their heads and sewing machines on their shoulders, hoping to be able to use them to earn some money. Others brought donkey carts loaded with clothing, pots, pans, children and elderly relatives.
“Boko Haram has burned my house – I have nowhere to return to,” said Asada Ngassi, a 30-year-old mother of five, while breastfeeding her youngest baby outside a tent she made out of tree branches and empty tarpaulin rice sacks.
“It’s the third time I’ve lost my home. I’m not going anywhere else,” she said.
Nearby, with no regular water supply nor electricity, people stood in a 200-meter-long queue waiting for trickles from a container which usually serves just one household in the prosperous neighborhoods of Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde.
Beneath the scorching sun, the refugees peddled vegetables, flip flops, air fresheners and other goods in a make-shift market set up directly on the ground within just hours of arrival.
“There is a massive influx of people who are very afraid and tired and have really put a lot of hope on Cameroon to find refuge and respite here,” said Allegra Baiocchi, the U.N.’s development and humanitarian coordinator in Cameroon.
“The priority now is to respond to the most urgent needs,” she said, emphasizing safety and shelter.
“They are hungry so they need immediate food assistance and medical screening,” she said, adding that the United Nations is working on a rapid scaling up of operations in the area.
“This is hard because we have so many emergencies at the same time,” she said.
Cameroon hosts about 350,000 refugees from Nigeria and the Central African Republic (CAR).
Meanwhile, in the country’s two English-speaking Western regions, 437,000 people have become internally displaced because of violence and insecurity, according to the United Nations.
In total, around 4.3 million Cameroonians, mostly women, and children are now in need of lifesaving assistance, according to the U.N.
“Cameroon cannot continue to be a forgotten emergency,” Baiocchi said.