Kidnappers in Cameroon have released 80 children and two staff members who were taken from a Presbyterian boarding school, but the violent separatist unrest in the country’s Northwest Region persists.
Last Wednesday, two days after the kidnapping, the abductors returned 78 of the students to a church in the village of Nkwen near Bamenda, the regional capital. The Rev. Fonki Samuel Forba, who leads the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, said on Monday the kidnappers released the last two students, a teacher, and the school’s principal, stressing, “I can authoritatively tell you that we did not pay any ransom to secure their freedom.”
One of the rescued children told The Guardian the kidnappers made them walk through the night. “We didn’t know if they would kill us or not,” he said. “The [captors] said their only problem is that we were in school.”
Cameroon’s Northwest Region is the center of clashes between security forces and English-speaking separatists who complain of marginalization. The unrest began as peaceful protests in 2016 when English-speakers, who make up 20 percent of the country’s population, demanded more representation in schools and courts.
But the government’s violent crackdown gave steam to separatist groups, who now call the region the independent state of Ambazonia. Between five and 20 separatist groups operate in the Northwest and Southwest regions. Amnesty International estimated that violence by both separatists and security forces has killed up to 400 people since the unrest began. In two recent attacks, separatists chopped off the fingers of workers at a state-run rubber plantation after they defied an order to stay away.
The separatists have also burned down at least 100 schools to protest educators’ use of the French language. Students and teachers also were driven from buildings that were then turned into training grounds.
A day after the boarding school kidnapping, one of the separatist groups, called the Amba Boys, claimed responsibility in a video posted online. But a second rebel group, Mo Risc, blamed the attack on the government, claiming there was a “glaring French accent” in the video. Another group, the Ambazonia Governing Council, in a statement condemned the attack as the work of “infiltrators and saboteurs working directly or indirectly for the Cameroon oppressive regime.”
Mathel Majum, one of the rescued girls, told CNN the kidnappers assured them they would be released but warned them not to return to school. “They told us not to worry and feel free with them,” she said. “We never lacked food.”
Tanda Theophilus, a fellow for the Africa Program at the International Crisis Group, said the separatists’ focus on schools and businesses is an attempt to keep the movement alive.
“The intensity of the crisis is based on the fact that schools stopped at some point, and it goes down to a general strike of staying home on Mondays,” Theophilus said. “The separatists think if schools resume normally and the ghost town stops, their fight will have a lot of limitations.”
Joseph Achuo, a pastor at Harvest Bible Chapel in Bamenda, told me the unrest has brought severe restrictions. Authorities imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew on the city, and armored vehicles and armed security forces continue to patrol the streets. Achuo moved his three children to a school outside the region because of the danger.
It also disrupted religious activities, and his church canceled evening prayer meetings. “We had to move them earlier in the day, but nobody comes,” he said. “The church is less than half its regular attendance.”
Theophilus called for an inclusive dialogue that would begin by identifying and uniting the demands of the multiple separatist groups. Religious leaders in the country scheduled a conference next week to harmonize the demands of the English-speakers and put pressure on the government.
“That’s why we call on the international community to mount pressure on the government and separatists to make sure it takes place,” Theophilus said.