Cameroon’s plantations workers have become targets as the country wages a war on armed separatists in the English-speaking regions of Northwest and Southwest. Investigative journalist, Arison Tamfu, reports
It was a luminous afternoon in January, outside a thatched hut. Mako Mokosso, 42, sat cross-legged on a bamboo-made chair explaining how his four fingers were chopped off on the banana plantation in Tiko, a town in Southwest Region of Cameroon.
“They took us to the banana plantation and started cutting off the fingers of three women beside me. The women wailed but no one could hear because we were taken far away from human settlement,” Mokosso said and took a deep breath.
“When it was my turn, they ordered me to put my fingers on a stone. I did. The first guy cut off two of my fingers, but it was not enough. The second guy cut the other two fingers. I was left with only my thumb. The man beside me was shot in this side of the body and his two fingers were chopped off,” he recalled.
“I can still feel the pains right in my heart,” said Mokosso, sobbing.
The tragedy happened in November 2018.
The assailants proceeded to the plantation camp where Princewell Tendong, 36, and other workers lived.
“They surrendered us with a gun and pulled my wife and I and other workers out of our rooms and brought us to the centre of the plantation camp and started flogging us with machetes. They cut off my thumb on the right hand. The fingers and hands of six other workers were cut off that day,” said Tendong, losing balance and falling on his hospital bed where he is receiving treatment.
The painful experiences of Mokosso and Tendong have become routine in the Southwest, one of Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions where separatists are fighting to create an independent nation.
Working on the plantation is risky. Officials say gunmen regularly hide on its lands and target its workers. Soldiers are stationed nearby, but the plantation is large. By the time they’re able to respond, employees have been attacked. For the people daring enough to work on the plantations, it’s often a life of physical and mental torture.
According to hospital authorities where the victims are treated, the atrocities have been increasing in frequency and magnitude.
“We received in the hospital about 86 patients but definitely the number of those injured will be more than this because those who come to the hospital are those that are very serious that we eventually have to admit. These injuries have ranged from people having amputations up to four digits on one hand. Amputation of thumbs especially on the right hands. Multiple lacerations on their bodies from hairs to trunk and the lower limbs,” said Dr. Samuel Fon Tita, Chief Medical Officer of CDC Hospital.
Separatists have said on social media they want to cripple the activities of the plantations and cut off its revenue and have asked workers to stop work or be killed.
Tendong said their crime was that they have been working on the plantation in defiance of the no-work-on-the-plantation order issued by the separatists.
“They were angry with us for going to work without salary for six months. They said we are working and making money for the company and government is using the money to buy cartridges that they use to kill them. They said the plantations now belongs to the Anglophone Cameroonians because they are on their land,” said Tendong.
The banana, rubber and palm oil plantations run by the state through the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC) are now battle grounds between separatists and government forces.
“The plantations have been abandoned because of insecurity reasons for many, many months. At least four soldiers have been killed in battles on the plantations. The situation of the fields is deplorable,” said Frankline Njie, CDC General Manager.
The workers say they now live in fear, worried the attackers will come again. Many have deserted the plantation camps except victims of assault.
Families of victims are barely surviving.
“Life has been difficult from the day my husband’s finger was cut off. I don’t even have transport to visit him in the hospital. These my children have not eaten since morning,” said Quinta Njuh, wife of Tendong.
“We are suffering. This my child has not gone to school because there are no school fees, no books. The father has no fingers and cannot afford those things. It is tough on us,” said Lilian Manyor, wife of Mokosso.
The plantation is the second largest employer of the country, but more than 10,000 people are no longer working. Cameroon needs at least $51 million to rehabilitate the plantation but it is not the money that is the main concern.
“The biggest constraint is security. Nobody can take the required care without having the assurance that nobody is standing behind him or her with a machete, nobody can do that,” said Njie.
“The task of one taper is one hectare. One hectare is a wide area. That means that, that taper is alone inside about 500 trees. That taper must have some degree of assurance that somebody is not standing beside him or her with a machete or with a gun. That is the problem that we face,” he added.
Minority English-speaking Cameroonians picked up arms in 2017 after government forces killed dozens and arrested several Anglophones who were protesting against marginalisation in the largely French-speaking country. United Nations estimate that close to 500,000 people have been displaced internally by the conflict.
President Paul Biya, who has been in power for 36 years, rejected calls by the United Nations and European Union to resolve the conflict through dialogue with the separatists and warned if they don’t give up their weapons, they’ll be killed.
Many victims of the conflict like Mokosso and Tendong now fear the war and atrocities will only escalate. “As far as I’m concerned, they should hold dialogue. I’m just a labourer. I don’t know how it started and how it will end. They should solve the problem,” said Tendong.