When chil­dren are sus­pects

Cameroon is hold­ing young school­boys seen as pos­si­ble ter­ror­ist re­cruits.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Robyn Dixon robyn.dixon @latimes.com

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The boys are shab­bily dressed and carry beg­ging bowls, dart­ing amid the traf­fic in many West African cities or hud­dled in dusty al­leys recit­ing verses from the Ko­ran.

Some­times they’re pitied, but more of­ten ig­nored. Many are the sons of poor farm­ers who sur­ren­der them at a young age to Is­lamic teach­ers known as marabouts in in­for­mal Ko­ranic schools.

In north­ern Cameroon, how­ever, Ko­ranic school­child­ren are seen as a ter­ror­ist threat.

In De­cem­ber, se­cu­rity forces ar­rested 84 boys from Ko­ranic schools in the north, some as young as 5, and have held them with­out charges in a chil­dren’s de­ten­tion cen­ter, ac­cord­ing to rights group Amnesty In­ter­na­tional. Author­i­ties also ar­rested 43 teach­ers at the schools in the town of Guir­vidig, call­ing the schools train­ing camps of the Nige­rian ter­ror­ist group Boko Haram.

Boko Haram has crossed the poorly guarded bor­der into Cameroon and launched nu­mer­ous at­tacks. Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in north­ern Cameroon said in April that Boko Haram was us­ing preach­ers to re­cruit youths in north­ern vil­lages.

Most of the chil­dren who were ar­rested by Cameroo­nian author­i­ties are younger than 10, and only three are older than 15.

“It is un­think­able to keep chil­dren so young away from their par­ents for so long, and with so lit­tle sup­port. The chil­dren want noth­ing more than to go home and be with their fam­i­lies. They do not de­serve to be­come col­lat­eral dam­age in the war against Boko Haram,” said Steve Cock­burn, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional’s deputy re­gional di­rec­tor for West and Cen­tral Africa.

“De­tain­ing young chil­dren will do noth­ing to pro­tect Cameroo­ni­ans liv­ing un­der the threat of Boko Haram.”

Boko Haram’s in­sur­gency in north­east Nige­ria has stran­gled re­gional trade and hurt the north Cameroo­nian econ­omy. At­tacks by Boko Haram fight­ers have forced many Cameroo­nian farm­ers to aban­don their crops, cut­ting agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion in half, ac­cord­ing to the Cameroo­nian Min­istry of Agri­cul­ture and Ru­ral De­vel­op­ment.

In Nige­ria, Boko Haram of­ten abducts boys and forces them to join its ranks and fight. The group is seek­ing to es­tab­lish an Is­lamic state in Nige­ria and be­lieves all chil­dren should get a Ko­ranic ed­u­ca­tion, not a sec­u­lar one.

There have been nu­mer­ous re­ports in north­ern Cameroon of Boko Haram lur­ing teenage boys to Nige­ria to fight.

On Dec. 20, po­lice and army sol­diers raided schools in Guir­vidig, a town in north­ern Cameroon, af­ter lo­cal author­i­ties ac­cused the schools of re­cruit­ing chil­dren for Boko Haram.

The boys and men were herded into the town square, where they waited for hours be­fore the young­sters were loaded onto trucks and re­moved to a chil­dren’s de­ten­tion cen­ter, Amnesty In­ter­na­tional said. The teach­ers were jailed.

“We were read­ing the Ko­ran when the se­cu­rity forces stormed our school,” one child told Amnesty In­ter­na­tional. “They asked for ID cards and in­ter­ro­gated us. They said they would dig our grave and throw us into it. We were scared. Then they roughed up our teach­ers. Some among them had blood all over their faces.”

Wit­nesses cited by Amnesty said sol­diers also raided houses and took be­long­ings. They de­manded bribes from par­ents in re­turn for re­leas­ing their ar­rested sons.

“That day, I had no money, and they took my child,” one wit­ness told Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

A teacher was beaten on the head with a gun butt un­til he vom­ited blood, wit­nesses told Amnesty.

“Amnesty In­ter­na­tional re­searchers have raised the case of the de­tained chil­dren di­rectly with many dif­fer­ent Cameroo­nian author­i­ties. While most rec­og­nize that the chil­dren pose no threat, none have taken re­spon­si­bil­ity to fa­cil­i­tate their re­lease and rein­te­gra­tion, leav­ing the chil­dren de­tained in limbo,” an Amnesty state­ment said.

The hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion called for the re­lease of the chil­dren younger than 15 and the re­lease of any oth­ers not charged. It de­manded an in­quiry on the raid and ar­rests.

Issouf Sanogo AFP/Getty Im­ages

NIGE­RI­ANS f lee­ing Boko Haram at­tacks in May head to neigh­bor­ing Niger to take shel­ter in the bor­der town of Bosso, se­cured by the mil­i­tary. The ter­ror­ist group has also been mak­ing raids into Cameroon.

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