KOLOFATA, CAMEROON —
Close to 7,000 soldiers from Cameroon and Chad have taken positions on Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria, ready to combat Boko Haram Islamist extremists. But the soldiers are finding cross-border operations difficult due to the fact that the insurgents have planted mines there.
Chadian and Cameroonian soldiers sang during a joint training session in Fotokol on Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria's Borno state, a Boko Haram stronghold.
It is from Fotokol that Chadian soldiers organize attacks on Nigerian towns seized by the Islamist group and assist Cameroon in protecting its territory from militants fighting to create an Islamist caliphate. Cameroonian-born Captain Beltus Kwene, who is supervising the training session, says it is imperative for forces to know eachother and prevent Boko Haram from penetrating.
In the beginning, Boko Haram fighters gained access to Cameroon's territory because of the confusion they had identifying Chadian soldiers he says, adding that they nevertheless succeeded in pushing back the insurgents.
The soldiers take turns to protect the bridge on the Elbeid river that separates Fotokol from Gambarou, Nigeria. Boko Haram fighters occupied the town for several months before Chadian soldiers chased them out early last month. Thousands died, the soldiers say.
Richard Ti, a Cameroonian soldier who was part of the operation to save Gambarou from the insurgents, says they avoided killing civilians because they were able to identify the Boko Haram fighters.
"They have the way they dress and they always move in a group armed with rockets and machine guns," he explained. "The population here collaborate with us and if there is any enemy in the quarter, they do alert us."
Troops are also stationed at the Cameroonian village of Kerawa, which derives its name from the Kerawa mountain on the Nigerian side of the border. Chadian Army Captain Azize Abdouramann told VOA Boko Haram fighters are trained on the mountain.
He says they hear gun shots when the militants are training and that they have a mosque where they pray before and after training and fighting. He adds that there is a special military post there for Boko Haram leaders.
According to Captain Ibrahim Njanko of the Cameroon military, Boko Haram fighters seem not to be disturbed by the huge presence of Chadian and Cameroonian troops in the border area. He says the insurgents come through the mountain to target Kolofata, which hosts one of their main bases.
"When they decide to come an attack Kolofata, they gather all their means, all their tanks, all their machine guns and everything because they know it is the headquarters," the captain said. "Nobody can imagine the day the date and the hour of attack because they always surprise when they come to attack Kolofata."
Njanko says the insurgents have put up stiff resistance, they have developed new strategies and are now planting mines.
"Now what they do is they put explosives on the road. They know that when the car will pass on those explosives every thing will be blown off, so it is their new strategy they use now," he noted. "Even that day they attacked Kolofata, their explosives were between Kerewa and us. Another one was between Amchide and us. They know that those army friends who will come to help us will pass on those explosives and will be destroyed."
Eight Cameroonian soldiers died in February when a mine exploded between Kolofata and Kerewa. Elvis Medumbe says that has not frightened him against combating Boko Haram.
"We are waiting for them right now to see what they will do but we know that we are ready in any situation," he said confidently. "We are ready all the time. The government is behind us, they give us every thing that we want so we are ready and prepared to face the Boko Haram and we are facing them and we shall defeat them."
Cameroon has received training and equipment from the United States and Russia to detect and destroy the mines.