The boys are shabbily dressed and carry begging bowls, darting between the traffic in many West African cities — or huddled in dusty alleys reciting verses from the Koran.
Sometimes they’re pitied and more often ignored. They often are the sons of poor, rural 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.
Last December, security forces arrested 84 boys from Koranic schools in northern Cameroon, some as young as 5, and since 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 terror group Boko Haram.
Boko Haram crosses the porous, poorly guarded border between Nigeria and Cameroon at will and has launched numerous attacks in Cameroon. Security officials in northern Cameroon warned in April that Boko Haram was using religious preachers to recruit youths in northern villages.
Most of the children arrested by Cameroonian authorities are under the age of 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 fighting 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 where loaded onto trucks and removed to a children’s detention center, according to Amnesty International. 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.”
According to witnesses cited by Amnesty, soldiers also raided houses and took people’s 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.
A teacher was beaten in 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 under 15 and the release of any others not charged. It demanded an inquiry into the raid and arrests.