What Happens To Kids Who've Been Under The Influence of Boko Haram?
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Over the last five years, the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram has killed and kidnapped hundreds of children. Recently, around 80 children were rescued from a Boko Haram camp in Cameroon, where the militant group has been making inroads. Cameroonian security forces say the children were being trained as child soldiers. They were taken to an orphanage where officials hope to rehabilitate them. Christopher Fomunyoh is a regional director with U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, a group that promotes democratic institutions around the world. He was recently on a fact-finding mission in the area and visited that orphanage. Good morning. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio of this story, we report that Cameroonian security forces say the children were being trained as child soldiers. We cannot confirm this. The children reportedly were rescued from a Quranic school where they were being indoctrinated.]
CHRISTOPHER FOMUNYOH: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Now, you went to the north of Cameroon to see the effects of Boko Haram in the area. And what did you find?
FOMUNYOH: I wanted to take a look at children, who are the most vulnerable group. And then I was introduced to this orphanage in the city of Maroua, where these 80 kids - over 80 kids - from the ages of 5 to 18 are being housed, having been rescued by the Cameroonian army from what was perceived at the time as a Boko Haram training ground.
MONTAGNE: Were you able to talk to any of the kids or to have them tell you what happened to them?
FOMUNYOH: I did make an effort to try to engage some of the teenagers in conversations. And it was extremely difficult because they'll just look at me. They would smile, or they'll look away. And the managers of the orphanage told me that that is one of the biggest challenges that they face because up until this point, they have not been able to trace their exact origins - the villages from which they came - just because communication is extremely difficult.
MONTAGNE: And what do you know about these kids, having visited that orphanage?
FOMUNYOH: These kids have no sense of how to live in a normal society. They can't speak French. They can't speak English. They speak a little bit of Arabic and a little bit of the local languages. So they've been having difficulties communicating with the managers of the orphanage. They can't count. They don't know the alphabet.
And from when I got there in the morning, the managers were trying to teach them how to write the alphabet and how to write numbers - how to count from one to 10. They were very badly clothed, very badly nourished. And it's just very heartbreaking to see that kids were being subjected to that kind of treatment. And it just leads to the expectation that they were being prepared for very negative activities in their future lives.
MONTAGNE: Such as?
FOMUNYOH: Potential fighters because there was - they're already so alienated from society that invariably, if they had been allowed in these camps, that you could very well see that it would be extremely difficult for them in the future to integrate themselves within society.
MONTAGNE: Where they healthy at all? Physically healthy?
FOMUNYOH: The rescue operations took place in November, 2014. I was told by the managers of this orphanage that they look healthier now than when they first arrived the city of Maroua. So there a lot of people that are coming forward, sometimes donating food and donating clothing - just the basic needs.
MONTAGNE: There is, of course, now forces coming in from around Nigeria starting to deal with this. How is that working?
FOMUNYOH: Well, Renee, for me, that is the glimmer of hope in this story - the fact that finally, countries on the continent realize that this is more than just a Nigeria issue. And my hope is that if this (unintelligible) force really defeats Boko Haram militarily, then the real work is going to begin to look out for the vulnerable populations and to really engage in sustainable social and economic development projects in these impacted areas so that in the next five or 10 years, we don't have another crisis of extremists benefiting from vulnerable populations.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
FOMUNYOH: Thank you very much, Renee, for having me.
MONTAGNE: Christopher Fomunyoh is in Douala, Cameroon. He is with the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.