‘They punished me for having books’: schools in Cameroon terrorised by armed groups

Human Rights Watch says armed separatists in anglophone regions have made schools a battleground, with hundreds of school pupils and teachers attacked, kidnapped or threatened

Armed separatists in Cameroon’s anglophone regions have attacked, kidnapped and threatened hundreds of school pupils in nearly five years of violence that has forced more than 230,000 children to flee their homes, a report has found.

In a detailed analysis of the conflict that has gripped 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 fight to form their own state.

Ilaria Allegrozzi, author of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, said it was essential that separatist leaders called off a school boycott, which was initially intended as a protest over injustices against English-speakers but which is now “destroying an entire generation of Cameroonians” by depriving them of an education.

“But most importantly, they should also start reining in their fighters,” she said. “They should instruct their fighters to stop attacking schools. Schools are not places that can be battlegrounds.”

The crisis in the anglophone regions began in late 2016, when Cameroonian security forces used excessive force against demonstrations led by teachers and lawyers angry about the perceived marginalisation of the anglophone education and legal systems.

Those 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, the report said.

More than 500 students, and at least 100 education professionals, have been attacked, it claimed, with at least 11 pupils and five teachers killed, and scores of others assaulted, harassed, and threatened for failing to comply with the boycott. Separatist fighters have also kidnapped 255 students, according to HRW.

A puddle of blood in a classroom after a shooting at a school in Kumba.
A puddle of blood in a classroom after a shooting at a school in Kumba, western Cameroon. According to the UN, the attacks have left 700,000 students without education. Photograph: Josiane Kouagheu/Reuters

One woman, a 19-year-old secondary school pupil, from Buea, Southwest Region, recalled being abducted and brutally maimed by armed separatists in January 2020, on her way back from school.

“They were armed with machetes and knives,” she said. “They blindfolded me so I could not see where they were taking me. We had to walk for a few hours. I was not given food. I slept on the ground outside for three days. The amba [separatist fighters] called my father and asked him to pay money for my release.

“On the third day, when I was about to be released, they cut my finger with a machete. One of the boys did it. They punished me because they found schoolbooks 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 chopped the forefinger of my left hand.”

In September, when schools were supposed to reopen for the new academic year, two out of three in Cameroon’s anglophone regions remained closed, leaving more than 700,000 students without education, according to the UN.

Those who do risk going to school often do it covertly, the report said.

“Many of my students do not wear school uniforms on their way to and from school,” said a chemistry teacher in Buea. “If they wear them, they can be at risk of being spotted by the separatist fighters on the road and attacked. Also, they don’t use school bags. They put their books and notebooks in shopping bags like those we use to go to the market to buy food.”

Allegrozzi said that although the report focused on attacks on education by armed separatist groups, human rights abuses have been committed by both sides.

“[Cameroonian] security forces also bear responsibility for serious attacks against civilians,” she said. “They have killed innocent people during abusive counterinsurgency operations. They have burnt hundreds of villages and homes across the two regions. So people have been really caught in the middle between a rock and a hard place.”

For many – nearly 600,000 people since late 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 “deadly silence” on the country’s “education mega-emergency”.

“Cameroon is one of the world’s most forgotten crises,” he said. “Until the international community steps up its support and diplomatic engagement, children will continue to bear the brunt of the violence.”

Pupils during a lesson in Souza, Cameroon. Many of the desks are empty at the school
Pupils during a lesson in Souza, western Cameroon. Many of the desks are empty at the school, with children afraid to attend classes due to the attacks. Photograph: Daniel Beloumou Olomo/AFP/Getty

The Cameroonian government said it has deployed security forces to some schools to reassure teachers and pupils about safety. It has also mounted a “back to school” campaign over the past two years in an attempt to break the boycott.

But in its report HRW is critical of the authorities’ failure to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. It said the armed groups “have enjoyed almost absolute impunity for their attacks on education”.

The organisation based its research on 155 telephone calls with people in Cameroon.

The separatist leaders, who belong to multiple groups, all disputed the findings of the report. One said it was “extremely biased to the degree that it is difficult to characterise it as anything other than as [sic] deliberate misinformation”.

Another accused Cameroon’s security forces of trying to “sully the good image and reputation” of the separatists by committing “atrocious actions including the burning down of schools” in nonmilitary attire.

A third said that as HRW had relied on telephone calls for its research it had “missed the dynamics in play” on the ground. It blamed the “appalling situation” on the government of Cameroon, adding: “It is clear from the skewed attitude of HRW that it blindly serves the purposes of those close to the ancient dictator Paul Biya.”

Biya, 88, has been president of Cameroon since 1982.

Contributor

Lizzy Davies

The GuardianTramp

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