Armed separatists in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon have attacked, kidnapped and threatened hundreds of students in nearly five years of violence that has forced more than 230,000 children to flee their homes, according to a report.
In a detailed analysis of the conflict that has raged in the English-speaking regions since 2017, dozens of students and teachers speak of brutal attacks by armed groups who have made education a battleground in their struggle to form their own. State.
Ilaria Allegrozzi, author of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, said it was essential that separatist leaders reverse a school boycott, which was originally conceived as a protest against injustices against Anglophones, but which “now destroys everything. a generation of Cameroonians ”by depriving them of an education.
“But more importantly, they should also start to restrain their fighters,” she said. “They should order their fighters to stop attacking schools. Schools are not places that can be battlegrounds.
The crisis in the English-speaking regions began in late 2016, when Cameroonian security forces used excessive force against protests led by teachers and lawyers angry at the perceived marginalization of the English-speaking education and legal systems.
These protests were peaceful, but since 2017, when armed separatist groups seeking independence for the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions declared an education boycott, at least 70 schools have been attacked, according to The report.
More than 500 students and at least 100 education professionals have been attacked, he said, with at least 11 students and five teachers killed, and dozens more assaulted, harassed and threatened for not to have respected the boycott. Separatist fighters also kidnapped 255 students, according to HRW.
A woman, a 19-year-old high school student from Buea, in the South West region, recalled being abducted and brutally mutilated by armed separatists in January 2020, as she returned from school.
“They were armed with machetes and knives,” she said. “They blindfolded me so I couldn’t see where they were taking me. We must have walked for a few hours. I did not receive any food. I slept on the floor outside for three days. the amba [separatist fighters] called my dad and asked him to pay for my release.
“On the third day, when I was about to be released, they cut my finger off with a machete. One of the boys did. They punished me because they found textbooks in my bag. They wanted to cut a finger off my right hand to prevent me from writing again. I begged them [not to], and then they cut off the index finger of my left hand.
In September, as schools were due to reopen for the new school year, two out of three in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon remained closed, leaving more than 700,000 students without education, according to the UN.
Those at risk of going to school often do so secretly, according to the report.
“A lot of my students don’t wear school uniforms on their way to school,” said a chemistry teacher in Buea. “If they wear them, they risk being spotted by separatist fighters on the road and attacked. Plus, they don’t use school bags. They put their books and notebooks in shopping bags like the ones we use to go to the market to buy food. “
Allegrozzi said that although the report focuses on attacks on education by armed separatist groups, human rights violations have been committed by both sides.
“[Cameroonian] the security forces also bear responsibility for serious attacks against civilians, ”she said. “They killed innocent people in abusive counterinsurgency operations. They burned down hundreds of villages and homes in both regions. So people were really caught between a rock and a hard place. “
For many – nearly 600,000 people since the end of 2016, according to the UN – the only option is to flee. Among them are teachers and at least 230,000 children who have had to leave after attacks on education or their communities.
After a visit to Cameroon earlier this month, Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, called on the international community to break its “dead silence” on the country’s “educational mega-emergency”.
“Cameroon is one of the most forgotten crises in the world,” he said. “Until the international community intensifies its support and diplomatic engagement, children will continue to bear the brunt of violence.
The Cameroonian government said it has deployed security forces in some schools to reassure teachers and students of safety. He has also launched a “back to school” campaign over the past two years in an attempt to break the boycott.
But in its report, HRW criticizes the authorities’ failure to bring the perpetrators to justice. He said the armed groups “have enjoyed almost absolute impunity for their attacks on education.”
The organization based its research on 155 phone calls with people in Cameroon.
The separatist leaders, who belong to several groups, have all disputed the report’s findings. One said he was “extremely biased to the point that it is difficult to characterize him other than as [sic] deliberate disinformation ”.
Another accused the Cameroonian security forces of having tried to “tarnish the good image and the good reputation” of the separatists by committing “atrocious actions, in particular the burning of schools” in non-military clothes.
A third said that, as HRW had relied on phone calls for its research, it had “missed the dynamics at play” on the ground. He blamed the “appalling situation” on the government of Cameroon, adding: “It is clear from HRW’s biased attitude that it blindly serves the goals of those close to former dictator Paul Biya.”
Biya, 88, has been President of Cameroon since 1982.