While the Western world is riveted on the war in Ukraine, Cameroonian refugees tell of five years of a forgotten conflict on the African continent.
“Did you know that we also speak English in Cameroon?” asks the almost accusing Akor Pelkings, a 25-year-old Cameroonian with a penetrating gaze, from a refugee camp in eastern Nigeria.
Arriving in Nigeria three years ago, the young man is one of the millions of English-speaking Cameroonians forced to flee their homes due to the separatist conflict that has raged since 2017 in the two regions of western Cameroon.
The Cameroonian army is fighting separatist groups there who want to create an independent state for the English-speakers of Cameroon, who consider themselves marginalized in this country, where the majority of French is spoken, a legacy of colonization.
“Why is no one caring about us?” resuscitation, more virulent, Akor Pelkings. “Our lives are ruined, but no one cares. From a few days we went to months and now to years, ”he shakes.
The English-language conflict has thrown Cameroon “out of its worst humanitarian crisis since independence” and killed about 6,000 people, according to the think tank International Crisis Group (ICG). And just like Akor Pelkings, 70,000 English speakers fled to Nigeria, a country with which they share a border, but above all the same language.
Taken from end to end, the horrific stories of dozens of these refugees, interviewed in late January by the AFP, draw the outlines of a deadly conflict that has been bound in indifference for five years. Whether they traveled in 2017, or just a few months ago, they all tell almost the same story. First the arrests. Neighbors or relatives, supporters of secession, loaded into vans and never seen again.
“In my village, no one has ever thrown a stone at the soldiers, but so many young people have been arrested,” testified Gerard Tiko’Or Akenji of the farm he founded in one of the camps established by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). ), in Ogoja in eastern Nigeria.
Arrested four times between 2017 and 2019, “I was tortured”, says this 45-year-old Cameroonian who fled “to Nigeria in March 2019 for fear of dying”.
“Ready to go”
Then the gunshots. The incessant crackling of weapons that wakes up at night and scares into the morning. When they bumped into each other: “I slept with the door open, my sneakers on my feet, ready to run”, the farmer remembers. “The sound of weapons and explosives killed many old people, they died of fear.” Then the schools closed.
“From the beginning of the conflict, I had to stop my studies,” says Akor Pelkings, who dreamed of going to university and now breeds chickens in this camp. In September 2021, two out of three schools were closed in the two English-speaking regions, depriving 700,000 children and young people of education, according to the UN.
Hundreds of schools have been attacked there, according to Human Rights Watch. Almost all of the separatists who refuse to teach French there. But here, where most refugees embrace the separatist cause, “no one will tell you that,” says a humanitarian source.
Access to care has also deteriorated dramatically, with health centers often being attacked or occupied. Chu Bernice Chang will remember her first birth: as a 21-year-old, she gave birth at home without help. The hospital in her village was then used as a backbone for the army, she explains.
Five euros a month
But it was above all the hundreds of burned villages, terrible punishment for having helped one of the two camps, who decided that most of them should flee. Often overnight. “My village was attacked six times,” said Odilia Ntong, a 50-year-old woman with an elegant appearance. One day “the soldiers destroyed my house, I had nothing left so I went”. More than 250 villages have been destroyed, according to an ICG inventory.
For Mrs. Ntong then began a journey of “five days through the bush” with nine other women to “sleep on the ground,” hungry, before finally succeeding in crossing the border. Today, she lives in Takum, a city in eastern Nigeria, in a small room that she rents for 1,500 naira (3 euros) a month.
To survive, she fights to sell traditional hats on the market and receives from the UNHCR, like all refugees in Nigeria, 2,600 naira (5 euros) a month. “It is a crisis that is invisible, the number of refugees has only increased for five years, and yet the funds allocated by donors have fallen,” warns Roland Schönbauer, spokesman for Nigeria for the UNHCR.
“Here we are safe, but we are hungry, so many are going back to Cameroon,” storms Akor Pelkings. “They live in the bush, some have been killed,” whispers the boy, who suddenly goes from anger to resignation. “I have no more hope, it’s five years ago, nothing is changing and no one wants to see what happens there.”