The U.N. is working with the governments of Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad to encourage communities to reintegrate rehabilitated ex-Boko Haram fighters and people held captive by the militant sect. The initiative faces continued resistance.
Two hundred women and children said to be ex-Boko Haram militants are in a makeshift camp here at Kolofata on Cameroon's northern border with Nigeria.
The women say most of them were captured and kept in the Sambisa forest where they served as cooks and were subjected to rape and sexual slavery. They were eventually forced to join Boko Haram as fighters, spies and suicide bombers. Their sons were trained to fight and daughters became suicide bombers.
Among the ex-militants is Mamouni Adji, a 34-year-old mother of three. She said they were saved from Boko Haram training camps after troops from Cameroon, Chad and Nigeria operating under a multi-national joint task force attacked Sambisa for three consecutive weeks in May 2017.
She lost her remaining daughter in the attack. Two others went as suicide bombers and have never returned.
Adji said she returned home hoping to find peace, but instead met violence from people who consider the returnees Boko Haram militants. She said her nightmare is not over.
Adji said if she had not gone to buy food two weeks ago, she would have been killed in the fire that burned her house. She said she is left with nothing but a copy of her identity card that proves that she is a citizen of her village.
Boko Haram forcibly recruited thousands of youths in Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad and Niger in its effort to create an Islamic state in West Africa.
Muhammad Djamil, president of Nigerian Muslim youths, said communities should accept the returning fighters and stop stigmatization, which may make them more radical. He said the military should also stop persecuting them as if they were still fighters.
"The law enforcement agents are using excessive force on these people such that even the innocent people are being killed alongside the militants and that is giving the innocent citizens the thinking that the government is not for us, it is against us and now they lend more support to the extremist. Give them cover, so we should reduce the force that we use in curtailing this. Dialogue, inclusive dialogue is what will solve this and not force," said Djamil.
Villagers said the ex-fighters and captives may be returning with Boko Haram ideology or be spies.
Mohammed Chambas, the U.N. special representative in West Africa, said the worries of the population are legitimate.
But Chambas said Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad should promote deradicalization centers to help re-integrate the former fighters and victims.
"They have succeeded in pushing Boko Haram back. So on that security front there has been good success and we all commend the military efforts that have been taken. At the same time let us address issues of governance, of bringing on board women and youth to tackle the root causes of violent extremism in central Africa, in west Africa, in the Sahel," he said.
Cameroon and the U.N. have been distributing seeds, goats, sheep and pigs to the returnees and asking their communities to welcome them.