Security forces in Cameroon must free the 84 children – some of whom are as young as five years old – who have been held illegally for six months after being rounded up during a raid on Quranic schools in the far north of the country, said Amnesty International today (Fri 19 June).
On 20 December, a joint force of police, gendarmes and army sealed off neighbourhoods in the town of Guirvidig and raided schools that local authorities had accused of recruiting children for the armed group, Boko Haram. No attacks had previously been reported in the town.
During the raid, witnesses report that the men and boys were rounded up and made to wait for hours in a public square before being forced to board trucks. The children were kept in custody at the gendarmerie headquarters for four days before being transferred to a juvenile centre under the control of the Ministry of Social Affairs where they have been held ever since.
The men were taken to the Central Prison in Maroua, where they also remain in extremely poor conditions.
One child told Amnesty:
“We were reading the Quran when the security forces stormed our school. 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.”
According to witness testimonies gathered by Amnesty, the security forces also forced their ways into homes, confiscating assets and asking residents for bribes. One parent saw people giving money to the security forces to secure the release of their arrested sons. “That day, I had no money and they took my kid," he said.
A number of men were beaten during their arrest.
One 39-year-old Quranic teacher was repeatedly hit with the butt of a gun until he vomited blood. Amnesty visited the teacher at the prison in Maroua. He was not able to hold his head in an upright position and needed assistance to walk. He has been transferred to the hospital to be treated for tuberculosis but is yet to receive any treatment for injuries sustained during his arrest.
Cameroon has increased the number of its security forces in the far north region of the country over the past year, in response to a series of large-scale Boko Haram attacks on Cameroonian territory. Many civilians have been executed and kidnapped.
Amnesty International’s West and Central Africa Deputy Director Steve Cockburn said:
“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.
“These children do not deserve to become collateral damage in the war against Boko Haram.
“Detaining young children will do nothing to protect Cameroonians living under the threat of Boko Haram. The Government must stand by its promise to respect human rights in the fight against Boko Haram, and release these children so they can be reunited with their families without delay.”