Cameroon is melting down. A year-long war is ravaging the nation. Investigative journalist, Arison Tamfu, recently became the first local journalist to spend time with the fighters and victims of the war in the troubled Anglophone regions of the country. With little International action, it is feared that a genocide looms in the country that has just seen 85-year-old president Paul Biya who has ruled for 36 years re-elected for another seven-year-mandate.
Kombone-Mission, a village in the South West region of Cameroon, was once renowned for its serenity and hospitality but one day in January everything changed. The day was Friday, January 5, 2018 and *Labata had just returned to his native village, Kwakwa, one week earlier. He escaped on October 1, 2017 after Cameroon security forces allegedly shot and killed his friend and a relative who were part of a protest against injustice on Cameroon’s anglophone minority. Labata came back with two things: a gun and revenge. In the afternoon, he took his weapon, went to Kombone-Mission, a neirghbouring village, shot a gendarmerie officer of the Cameroon security forces and left. The officer died.
There were consequences, gruesome consequences.
Cameroon security forces came the following day, a large force strengthened by sophisticated weaponry and advanced swiftly through the village and encountered little resistance. Poorly equipped Labata and other armed separatist fighters in the area retreated in disarray, leaving civilians at the mercy of the security forces. The response of the government forces was without mercy. They were said to have shot indiscriminately, burning houses in Kwakwa, Bole, Kake, Kombone-Mission, Wone and Ekombe villages. The scene of the attack is still pure devastation. The death toll that day is still a mystery.
The attack in the little known Kombone-Mission is said to be among hundreds of others in the past 14 months (and counting) as a conflict between Cameroon security forces and armed separatist forces ripples through the heart of the nation, claiming hundreds of lives and displacing thousands of people. The attacks are haphazard but very lethal. According to a September Amnesty International report, 400 ordinary people have already died in the ongoing clashes, however, local rights groups estimate that number has now increased fourfold as the conflict escalates into a full-scare war. In late October, an American missionary, Charles Trumann Wesco was reportedly shot in a crossfire in the Northwest. The war in the Anglophone regions and its adverse impact on the civilian populations is believed to be one of the worst humanitarian crises facing the country. Its origin is deeply rooted in the mistakes of the past.
To understand the Cameroon Anglophone uprising, you need to understand the history of Cameroon. Most of the territory known today as the Republic of Cameroon was a German protectorate from 1884. However, after the defeat of Germany during the First World War, the protectorate was divided into British and French Cameroons in 1916.
British Cameroons (known as Southern Cameroons) and French Cameroun (known as La Republique du Cameroun) were separate legal and political entities and historians have postulated that although this partition was said to be temporary, Britain and France instituted two different administrative styles and systems which were to impact on any subsequent movement towards eradicating the provisional nature of the partition and facilitating reunification. On Jan. 1, 1960, La Republique du Cameroun became independent.
In October 1961, United Nations agreed that Southern Cameroons was qualified to achieve independence either through association or integration which “should be on the basis of complete equality between the peoples of the erstwhile Non-Self-Governing Territory and those of the independent country with which it is integrated, and the peoples of both territories should have equal status and rights”.
It was with this understanding that on February 11, 1961 British Southern Cameroons voted to join La Republique du Cameroun and the two became one country.
“The majority of Southern Cameroonians wanted to be independent as a separate political entity, but the UN avoided this option,” says Prof. Victor Ngoh, an historian.
Just few years into the Union, Anglophones began to complain about marginalisation. In 1990, John Ngu Foncha, the architect who brought Southern Cameroons into the union, said he was saddened by the way Anglophones were being treated.
“The Anglophone Cameroonians whom I brought into the union have been ridiculed and referred to as ‘les Biafrians’ (the Biafrans), ‘les ennemies dans la maison’ (enemies in the house), ‘les traitres’ (traitors) etc., and the constitutional provisions which protected this Anglophone minority have been suppressed, their voice drowned while the rule of the gun replaced the dialogue which the Anglophones cherish very much,” Foncha said.
That declaration marked the dawn of the Anglophone struggle. A CIA 1986 report that was declassified in 2011 warned that “the Anglophone minority is a potential time bomb and should the central government fail to respect their cultural and linguistic traditions, the population may view armed confrontations as their only alternative”.
As tension escalated, the government was adamant and denied the existence of any such problem in the media and in public speeches.
On a day in November 2016, more than half a century after the union of the two Cameroons, Anglophone lawyers and teachers, angered by government’s attempts to marginalise them by imposing the French language on their schools and courts, began an indefinite strike action to demand respect of their language and culture through a return to a federal system of government. But security forces killed dozens of the demonstrators and jailed hundreds more. Anglophone leaders were infuriated and decided in 2017 to form armed separatist groups to fight for the independence of Anglophone Cameroon and create a new nation called “Ambazonia”.
The fighting is escalating. The armed separatist groups are operating in all the divisions of the two English-speaking regions of Northwest and Southwest. Villages where fighting is fierce are deserted. Labata’s village like many other villages in the regions is no man’s land: armed separatist groups have set up checkpoints along the main road. Occasionally, Cameroon security forces launch strikes with armoured, explosive-packed vehicles forcing them to abandon their posts but return as soon as the forces leave. Sometimes there is intense exchange of gunfire.
Civilians have fled either to the bush or francophone side of the country that is relatively peaceful. The U.N estimates that over 430,000 people have been displaced internally and at least 30,000 have escaped to Nigeria where they now live in refugee camps under UN care.
Eleven months after the Kombone-Mission attack, I have come to a small village called Nake in the South West region to meet Labata and 15 other armed separatist fighters for a first-of-its-kind encounter with a local journalist. We sit for a conversation under the shade of forest trees. They wear assorted dresses looking shabby and some bare-footed. Their weapons include artisanal hunting rifles and pistols, machetes and clubs.
“We never knew one day we will be soldiers fighting against Cameroonian soldiers,” says Labata who is now referred to among the separatists as “general”. “We never wanted to fight but now it has come to this and we are ready. We are here to defend ourselves.”
But their activities no longer resemble those of a self-defence group. *Wester narrates to the pleasure and amusement of others how, one day, he surrendered a police commissioner with a gun, asked him to lay face-down and chopped off his two legs with a machete.
“He was crying like a baby and I just shut up him with my gun,” he says laughing hysterically.
A poker-face young man in his early 20s, Wester has come to a radical conclusion.
“This war will only come to an end when we kill all the soldiers and get our independence,” he says.
And it’s not just empty threats. In April 2018, a police commissioner was beheaded, and his head displayed in front of the frightened population in Weh, a remote locality in Northwest region of the country. Beheading human beings has become a new normal in the war-torn region.
“We will continue to behead them,” Labata says, lighting a cigarette. “We don’t waste our bullets when we catch them with our hands; we just bury them alive.”
Labata was not always like that. Villagers testify that he was a gentle, regular student in a college before the war started. Many of them say they were radicalised by the way the military treated anglophone Cameroonians.
“You think am a bad man, right?” Wester asks, looking at me unfriendly. “Do you know the soldiers killed my father and raped my sister in front of me? Who is worse?” he asks rhetorically.
Just like the separatist forces, Cameroon security forces have become notorious for committing atrocities in the troubled regions. One person that has experienced the ruthlessness of the Cameroonian soldiers is *Emmanuel Mukete, a stoic community leader of Kwakwa village in his late 80s.
With a countenance buried in sad memories, Mukete looks dejectedly at what remains of his house.
“This is where my house was,” he says, pointing at the ruins of dresses, chairs, tables and all other household utensils.
Besides a mad man that moves around naked murmuring to himself, there is nobody left in his village, Kwakwa. Everybody else fled one night in January when Cameroon security forces moved speedily through the darkness burning houses and shooting indiscriminately. Many escaped to the bush, but some weren’t quick or lucky enough to follow.
“I saw how they were raping women and killing young men. They burned my sister alive in the house. She was laying in her sick bed and could not escape,” Mukete says.
Everything of value was taken and the rest was burnt.
Witnesses say the army moved from village to village, town to town arresting several young males who could not escape, and anybody suspected of allying or sympathising with the armed separatists. All of them were taken to the prison in the capital, Yaounde.
*Ndifor was among those who were arrested. In Yaounde, he was sent to an underground prison at the Secretary of State for Defence (SED) security service under cruel conditions.
“There was no light underground. We could only peep light from a tiny hole far above our heads. They were about 100 of us, all anglophones, detained underground. It was like hell fire,” he says, adding that they slept on a floor that, every day, warders made sure was filled with cold water.
Their legs and hands were chained, Ndifor says, adding that every day warders would beat them up severely using a machete in the morning, afternoon and evening before serving food.
“There were times that all my body was soaked in blood. I urinated blood because of the severe beatings. I was in so much pain that at one point I asked them to kill me, so I’d stop suffering,” he says, showing scars all over his body. “They beat one boy and he died right in front of me.”
During the whole time he was in the dungeon, he was not able to see his family or a lawyer.
“No one knew where I was, everyone thought I was dead,” he says.
Ndifor told me his story at Kondengui Prison, Cameroon’s disreputable prison, where he was eventually transferred after spending five months in the dungeon.
At Kondengui he lived in a section called “Kosovo” where hardened criminals are lodged.
“We are 72 in a room of 5 by 4-metre square. Humans sleep on top of others but am happy to be here than underground. Two of us that were transferred here have become mad”
Some of the atrocities narrated by Ndifor have been documented by local human rights groups.
Perhaps more painful is the frustration of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) who seem to be the worst victims of the war.
The New “Home” of IDPs
Mary Etom is one of the IDPs. A middle-aged woman with an easy smile, Etom recalls escaping with her children in the darkness of the night when the military raided Nake village. Her husband, she says, was shot in front of her. Two stray bullets landed on his right thigh and belly. He had one last breath and used it to shout for help, but it did not come. Villagers testify that he was a good man, well-thought-of in the area. Etom watched helplessly as her husband died in pain but there was no time to waste, she had to escape.
In the panic and confusion, she gathered her children and then made a dash for the bush.
More than 200 families traced Etom’s route to the bush, but today it offers little sanctuary. Her youngest daughter, one-year-old Sonia, fell sick after one week of arrival but help came too late. She died in the bush for want of food and water and was buried there.
Eleven months after, the mother of three remains in the bush. Thousands of others do too in a sprawling mass of shelter made of wood and roofed with tall grass. There is a mass of such shelter where I visited, more than a hundred of them each hosting at least 10 people. Across the troubled anglophone regions, hundreds of such shelters have been erected in the bush. When I visited the shelters, I was welcomed by a small dog that barks furiously when visitors arrive, then runs joyfully into the bush.
Etom told me her story outside her tent as breeze gently brushes her hair.
“We cannot go back to the village now, it’s not safe. Bullets will kill us. We will stay here,” she says, curling the ring on her finger. “Where will we go to?” she asks rhetorically.
There isn’t much to go back to. The army’s raid was dreadfully costly and Kwakwa, Bole, Kake, EKombe are now between 60 to 80 percent razed to the ground. Even buildings in less devastated quarters are battle scarred or half collapsed.
Her two remaining daughters, Righteous, 5 and Ruth, 2 both sit beside her, gazing solemnly at my camera. She is not sure where the children will get food from next.
“They don’t even know their father is dead,” she says, caressing Ruth’s forehead.
Etom shares her shelter with four other families, they are 24 of them in total.
Her neighbour, Esther Kundu, shares her shelter with 70 others. At night 14 kids squeeze into one messy mattress, others sleep on the cold floor.
“We have no food, we drink dirty water from the drum. All the children you see here have not gone to school since November 2016. Most of them are orphans,” says Kundu, parading the forlorn, filthy shelter.
Livelihoods are hard to come by in the bush. People just loiter, a few cocoa farms are cultivated, palm wine is tapped, and sporadic makeshift shops sell salt, palm oil, soap and palm wine.
“Life is hard,” says Samuel Asong, a respected community leader of Nake village.
The afternoon breeze carries the sound of insects. Asong is pensive.
“It’s difficult to explain… They destroyed our villages and killed our relatives and friends and…” he stops talking, looking gloomy.
Etom and Kundu are lucky: none of their family members is dead since they came to the bush but it isn’t so for everybody.
Increasing death toll and no hospital for the sick
Today was not a good day in the bush. There was deafening sound of gunshots early in the morning emanating from fighting in a nearby village and children were crying and running further into the bush to nowhere, but the afternoon has brought respite and serenity.
Thomas Enyong is perched on a bamboo-made lawn chair cross-legged, relaxing over two-litre jug of palm wine. He is bare-chested. A thin man in his late 50s, Enyong has a stern face.
A few metres from there, Michael Ebot exclaims, “Not again”. He has just been informed that his sister who has been sick in the bush in the last three months is dead. Crippled by grief on the same spot for a while, he takes a deep breath holding back tears.
“What do we do now?” he eventually asks rhetorically.
A small boy from the next shelter sits on a bamboo chair and watches, expressionless.
“A lot of people are dying. We don’t even have dresses to wear …” says Enyong but he is quickly interrupted by a middle-aged man standing just behind him.
“Children are falling sick in the bush. There is no medicine to give them. Three days ago, we buried 11 people who died in the bush,” the man says.
Statistics are unavailable, but the villagers say, in this part of the anglophone region alone, they have lost at least 90 people since they fled to the bush.
“Many people die because they cannot go to the hospital,” says Pascal Esona who still limps with crutches. He was hit on the leg by a stray bullet on the day the security forces raided the villages.
“I have not been able to go to the hospital since I came here because I am afraid they will mistake me for an “amba soldier” (armed separatist) and arrest me. Many people have been shot in the hospital simply because they went to treat themselves,” he says.
According to witnesses, in early August, two nurses, Nancy Azah and her husband Njong Paddisco, were reportedly shot by the military while on their way to attend to people wounded in the separatist revolt. The couple’s deaths provoked outrage among medical staff who said they were being threatened by both sides of the conflict.
“They were killed just because they wanted to save lives. Killed for treating people. Can you imagine,” says Arrey Rose, a nurse who took part in a protest demonstration against attacks on medical staff.
Born in the Bush
These are perilous times for nursing mothers and pregnant women in the bush. Nadege Kundu lies exhausted on a worn-out mattress covered with a white bed sheet that has lost its whiteness to dust and dirt and now looks reddish brown. Beside her, lies her one-week-old baby.
“Places are too cold for the baby. Mosquitoes are everywhere. We are just praying that the baby survives,” says Esther Kundu, Nadege’s mother.
In the next shelter, Margaret Sakwe is breastfeeding her two babies. On Jan. 6, when the security forces swooped her village, she was heavily pregnant. She recalls how she struggled in pain to escape from bullets and finally reached the bush. The following day Jan. 7, she gave birth to triplets in the bush.
“Few days after delivery, one of the children died due to starvation and lack of medical care. I could not go to hospital. All of us fear to go to the hospital. Soldiers will shoot us,” says Sakwe, putting the babies gently on a stinky mattress.
At least one out of five shelters in the bush has a new born. Some died after delivery, some survive miraculously. Pregnant women in the bush are worried. They don’t know if their babies will survive.
Rose Nganya is one of them. She is seven months pregnant. She is distressed.
“I am seven months pregnant, yet I don’t drink clean water. I bath with water from the drum that am sure contains bacteria. My skin is itchy. I don’t know how am going to deliver here in the bush. I don’t feed well. I have not been to any clinic in seven months. From every indication I might have to deliver here in the bush,” says Nganya, wearing a nervous countenance.
For most anglophone civilians seeking refuge in the bush, the most horrifying atrocities of the war have become routine. A blast breaks the morning calm, echoing off the ruined buildings. No one glances up, even the children. “Probably an armoured car,” someone mumbles.
“No bullet has touched us in the bush yet,” says Enyong gazing at the sunset. “They (Cameroon security forces) are still threatening to come and kill us in the bush.”
At night, I come to meet him in his shelter where I will spend the night. Enyong lies facing the sky.
“We live here with snakes and mosquitoes. We can’t sleep when it rains,” he says adding that they’re in need of just about everything. “There’s no aid at all, we need food, we need water,” he explains, worriedly fondling his moustache.
Many like *Nelson Ambe have escaped the crisis-hit anglophone regions and now seek refuge in cities in the Francophone part of the country. Nelson used to live in the bush with other IDPs but decided to travel to Douala where hundreds of other IDPs now live. Ambe is 29 but looks older than his age as a result of hardship.
In Douala, there is an abandoned dilapidated building situated at the notorious New Bell neighbourhood where cockroaches and rats usually rally for merriment. That is where Ambe lives with 10 other street children.
“This is worse than my village,” he says, explaining that he eats four times in a week, sometimes two times.
“I have been begging on the street. Am sick” he says, tears rolling down his emaciated cheeks. His mind is made up: in the coming days, he will travel to the troubled Anglophone areas to join the armed separatists. That is not a wise decision, I tell him. He is irritated.
“But why is the government and the world treating Anglophones this way? Were we born to suffer, to be killed like animals?” he asks fuming with anger. Ambe says he knows many of his friends and relatives who have escaped from the war in Anglophone regions who are now suffering like him in the capital Yaounde and Douala.
“Some have gone into prostitution just to survive,” he says
“40% of the IDPs in the cities have nowhere to stay,” says Ebenezer Nkegoah. His organisation, Foundation for Inclusive Education in collaboration with five other NGOs, recently conducted a census of the IDPs.
A gift from the government
The Cameroonian government has allocated a 19-million-euro humanitarian assistance for the IDPs in regions. Government has started distributing food, mattresses to the IDPs but there is a major setback.
The IDPs especially in the bush are not just ready to accept any gift from the government.
“They are killing us and want to give us food? We can’t accept their gifts. They want us to go back to where? Our houses were burned by the military, even if we receive the mattresses where will we sleep with that,” says Magdalene Ageawu who lives with her three children in the bush.
But governor Bernard Okalia Bilai of Southwest region doesn’t think so.
“We are inviting the elites, traditional rulers to come back and continue to work and sensitize their children especially those who have been misguided and are now in the bushes for them to return home. Let them return home and the administration is there to exchange with them so that the situation should return to normal everywhere in the region,” he says.
“More than 80% of the IDPs do not want to go back home because of what they have experienced. A solution is needed urgently not gifts. People will naturally return to their homes when things return to normal,” says Nkegoah.
Military option only?
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights has accused the Cameroon military and separatists of disrespecting human rights and committing atrocities.
“But that is not true,” says Colonel Didier Badjeck, sitting in a well-defended office in the capital, Yaounde. A fair-skinned man in a neat army uniform, Badjeck has an obvious military officer bearing. He is the spokesman of the Cameroon army.
“The Cameroon army is very professional. We don’t kill civilians,” he says, dealing with a continuous flow of subordinates delivering messages and files. “All reports about army atrocities are lies. We will deal with the terrorists.”
Paul Atanga Nji, Cameroon interior minister and an Anglophone, is even more categorical.
“The terrorists will be tracked down. They will have no hiding place. Let them surrender,” says Atanga Nji. The Cameroon government regularly refers to the separatists as “terrorists”.
Cameroon’s president, Paul Biya, 85, who has just won another seven-year-mandate after spending 36 years in power, has ignored calls from the international community and local rights groups to solve the conflict through an “inclusive political dialogue”.
Instead, after his re-election, his first response to solve the conflict has been the creation of a committee to disarm and reintegrate ex-fighters of separatist armed groups, a move that has been largely criticised by local political pundits.
“Fighting is escalating in the troubled regions and hundreds of people have died and you create a committee to reintegrate disarmed fighters? When and where were they disarmed and by who? This is a joke. Government ought to begin peace measures through dialogue and after that we can talk about disarmament and reintegration,” says Dr. Michael Mbake, a university lecturer and political analyst.
In his inaugural speech after the Oct. 7, 2018 presidential poll in the country, Paul Biya promised to unleash “the full force of the law” and “the determination of our defence and security forces” on the armed separatists.
“I am calling on them to lay down their arms and get back on the right track,” Biya said.
Threats like this will only worsen the situation, says Enyong. The scale of the humanitarian crisis requires an urgent international response but the world appears to be paying very little attention to the conflict, he adds.
“Where is the so-called United Nations to solve this problem? This world is wicked. Where is the United Nations, France, United States, Britain and the rest? So we will all die here before they look for a solution?” he adds sighing. “We don’t care who looks after us, we just want to be free, to eat and sleep comfortably”
The International community including United Nations, European Union and African Union has demanded severally that the Cameroonian government initiates an inclusive dialogue to end the conflict but that has not happened and is not likely to happen soon.
As the fighting intensifies, hundreds of thousands more civilians are expected to be displaced. With few ways out that don’t involve a gauntlet of violence, the humanitarian crisis will only worsen. Tonight, Etom and hundred other IDPs go to bed hoping that one day things will return to normal and they go back home.
*The interviewees opted for anonymity for security reasons