Cameroon’s bishops on May 16, 2018, decried the “monstrous violence” as 160,000 people are displaced in Cameroon and a further 26,000 flee into Nigeria. Caritas reported from conflict areas “stalked by fear and death”.
“Soldiers are burning villages,” said Moilgan, a refugee from south-west Cameroon now in Nigeria. “People are living in the bush. If you even walk up to the roadside you can be shot.”
The Catholic bishops of Cameroon have issued a “cry of distress” as a brutal army crackdown against an independence movement in English-speaking regions of the country has provoked an escalating humanitarian crisis.
It is a situation “marked by blind, inhumane, monstrous violence and a radicalization of positions that alarms us” state the bishops in their 16 May statement, signed by Monsignor Samuel Kleda, President of the Cameroon Bishops’ Conference.
“Let us stop all forms of violence and cease killing each other,” pleads the letter. “Let us save our country, Cameroon, from a baseless and futile civil war.”
The crisis is under-reported, with no journalists being allowed into conflict areas, but Caritas in Cameroon estimates at least 150 people including 64 civilians have been killed so far in running battles between the army and separatists. The real figure is likely to be far higher. Eyewitnesses fleeing into Nigeria report arbitrary arrests and killings, torture of suspected separatists, violence against children and rape.
“Not a week goes by without houses being burned down, people kidnapped or killed,” wrote Caritas Mamfé from south-western Cameroon, at the epicenter of what is known as the Anglophone crisis. “Fear has taken over this territory.”
Caritas is appealing for urgent funds to reach 5,000 refugees in Nigeria with basic supplies over the next two months and aims to reach displaced people in Cameroon with emergency relief. But the needs are vast.
Visiting Mamfé in south-western Cameroon, Hippolyte Sando of Caritas reported that 45,000 people in the diocese are displaced, leaving behind ghost villages: “The security situation is incredibly precarious and most people instead of working in their fields have fled their burned houses to hide in the bush.”
Caritas is currently the only aid agency in the badly-affected Anglophone areas of south-west and north-west Cameroon, providing food, water, medical supplies, and shelter, but it is very short of resources. “Only Caritas has, with difficulty, been able to access these areas stalked by fear and death,” wrote Hippolyte Sando.
Cameroon is torn between its former French and British territories. In October, activists in the English-speaking minority regions, which represent 20 percent of the population, declared a republic, in defiance of the French-dominated government of President Paul Biya.
Across the border, Caritas Nigeria has recorded 25,624 Cameroonian refugees but the total may be 40,000, according to the UN. Four-fifths are women and children. Only five in 100 refugees have proper shelter, the rest sleeping rough in abandoned buildings, or out in the open. Caritas found 270 refugees living in one building.
Nigeria’s bishops, while urging tolerance, warn that the refugee influx in Cross River, Taraba, Benue and Akwa-Ibom states is compounding the poverty of local communities. “We are lacking food, shelter, clean drinking water,” said one Nigerian village leader. “People are sick and dying.”
The Cameroon bishops are urging both sides to dialogue: “We, the Bishops of Cameroon, believe that a process of mediation must now be imposed to find a way out of the crisis… We are all brothers and sisters.”
Currently, however, the crisis is “seriously aggravated” according to Fr Emmanual Bekomson of Caritas Calabar, with refugee eyewitnesses reporting constant shootings during the last fortnight in the areas of Mamfé, Limbe, Buea, and Nsan Aragati. “The reality is going from bad to worse,” reports Abbé Kisito Balla Onana, Director of Caritas Cameroon. “More deaths and kidnappings in the last few days.”
As Caritas Mamfé wrote: “In these conditions, going back home would be suicide. The situation remains tense and gives no sign of better days ahead.”