ATTA, NIGERIA - Villagers in Cameroon’s volatile northwest region are fleeing separatist violence ahead of February 9 local and parliamentary elections to neighboring Nigeria. The rebels have vowed to stop the elections and are clashing with the military while civilians are caught up in the fighting.
Christians at True Faith Ministries, in the Nigerian border village of Atta, sing for God to protect them.
Pastor Innocent Okoli, 47, says more than 70 of them are Cameroonians who fled increased violence ahead of February 9 elections.
He says they crossed the border, about 40 kilometers (29 miles) away, in the past two weeks to escape clashes between Cameroon’s military and rebels.
"These are Christians with very different experiences. You have Christians who are yet to trace their loved ones, you have many separated children in church," he said. "You have so many unaccompanied children. You know, you cannot just minister to them without helping them to get food to eat and then find something to do."
A majority of the Cameroonians are women and children.
Regina Shey Najela, 18, says she and her younger brother joined a group of women to flee from Cameroon’s border village of Ngarum after security clashed with rebels, known as Amba boys.
"The Amba boys entered the quarter [our village] so, the policemen came shooting all over," she said. "We ran, we slept in the bush. My mother said that she will look for a way [for us to escape]. I am here with my junior brother. Before we left, they burned our house."
Aid group Positive Youth Africa has been providing relief material to Cameroonians fleeing the fighting to Atta.
Aid worker Franka Ma-ih Sulem Yong says it is difficult to estimate how many people have crossed from Cameroon to Nigeria in recent weeks because border villages are difficult to access.
But Ibrahima Mustapha, a community leader of the Mambilas ethnic group in Nigeria’s Taraba state, says they have received over 300 Cameroonians in the past two weeks.
The latest violence comes as Cameroon authorities try to hold local council and parliamentary elections in the troubled Northwest and Southwest regions.
President Paul Biya has insisted the elections will take place and ordered the military to kill all rebels who refuse to surrender.
Unrest broke out in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions in 2016, when teachers and lawyers protested the dominance of the French language and French-speaking officials.
Rebels took up arms a year later, demanding a separate English-speaking state they call “Ambazonia.”
The conflict with Cameroon’s military since then has killed about 3,000 people, many of them villagers caught up in the fighting. The United Nations reports that at least 50,000 Cameroonians have fled the fighting to Nigeria.