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5 Schools Reopen in Restive Cameroonian Regions

FILE - Children on the streets asking for education and to be spared from the separatist war, Aug. 31, 2019, in Bamenda, Cameroon. (Moki Kindzeka/VOA)
FILE - Children on the streets asking for education and to be spared from the separatist war, Aug. 31, 2019, in Bamenda, Cameroon. (Moki Kindzeka/VOA)

In Cameroon, five schools have reopened in the restive English-speaking regions after separatists shuttered them four years ago. The schools' reopening comes after the government dispatched so-called "peace caravans" to discuss the outcome of a national dialogue aimed at resolving the country's ongoing separatist crisis.

These are the voices of hundreds of school children, their parents and teachers at the campus of a government school in Tabekeng, a village in the English-speaking northwest region of Cameroon. Among the children who are happy to see their peers, teachers and institution after close to four years is 14-year-old Peter Moukeng. He says he has been longing for his education.

"I am tired of going to work in the cassava farm all the time. I want to go to school to become a nurse and help people who are wounded and suffering," he said.

Three of the school's 14 teachers are present. Geography teacher Godlove Tamfu says he decided to return after peace caravans sent by Prime Minister Joseph Dion Ngute to their localities convinced them that the government, in organizing a major national dialogue, was committed to solving the grievances of English speakers who constitute a minority in the country that also counts French as an official language.

"We are determined to send our children to school. There is nothing that is going to frighten us any longer and I think that any teacher who is ready, should come," he said.

Tamfu, his colleagues, parents and the school children are asking for additional security around the campuses. They have created local militias to inform the police when people with questionable motives are in their village.

Markets too are become busier. Magdaleine Tebeu, a 51-year-old mother of five who lost her son and husband in the separatist war, says she decided to return to her poultry shop because her children need food. She says she cannot continue waiting for sporadic humanitarian assistance.

Tebeu says they urgently need peace because they are tired of the killings and the sufferings they have been subdued to for long. She says she cannot continue staying at home and being unable to take care of her family since her husband's death.

The government says at least 200 of the more than 4,500 schools that were either sealed or occupied by separatist fighters have been reopened and troops have been deployed to protect the teachers and students from the separatists.

South West Governor Bernard Okalia Bilai says 30 percent of businesses that were closed in the towns have been reopened, but that the situation is a concern in most villages that fighters still occupy. He says people started returning to their businesses after the government organized the national dialogue.

"The South West region is recovering," he said. "Many internally displaced persons are coming back to their villages. Activities are returning to some enterprises and businesses too seem to move well, so we have hope that the situation is really improving."

Bilai says it is too soon to tell how many people have gone back to their villages. Separatists have on social media said the returns are possible because they have changed strategy and will only attack military posts and people caught collaborating with the central government in Yaounde, which the separatists describe as an annexation force.

Last month, Cameroon organized the national dialogue to solve the crisis and decided to give special status to the English-speaking regions. The government says parliament will vote this year on a law to determine the special status. The dialogue has also led to the release of more than 300 English speakers who were arrested and charged with terrorism.

Violence erupted in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions in 2016 when teachers and lawyers protested alleged discrimination at the hands of the French-speaking majority.

The government responded with a crackdown that sparked an armed movement for an independent, English-speaking state.

The separatists began to attack schools, kidnapping teachers and students, while vowing to make the regions ungovernable. The United Nations says the conflict has killed close to 3,000 people.