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Cameroon Receives First Returning Asylum-Seekers, Ex-Separatists from Nigeria

Returning refugees are welcomed by Cameroon authorities at Yaounde-Nsimalen International airport, Dec. 31, 2019. (M. Edwin Kindzeka/VOA)
Returning refugees are welcomed by Cameroon authorities at Yaounde-Nsimalen International airport, Dec. 31, 2019. (M. Edwin Kindzeka/VOA)

A chartered plane from the Nigerian city of Lagos landed at Yaounde’s international airport late Tuesday with 87 Cameroonian asylum-seekers and former separatists on board.

The group of mainly women and children was the first to return to Cameroon after fleeing to Nigeria to escape fighting between government troops and separatists in Cameroon’s troubled western regions.

Cameroon authorities say they returned voluntarily under an agreement with Nigeria and that at least 700 asylum-seekers and rebels are expected to return before the end of February.

Marie Nash, 29, fled the English-speaking southwestern town of Mamfe two years ago when fighting first broke out, but returned amid renewed talk of peace.

"Because of the war, I have experienced a lot of things," she said. "I just thank God because they want to bring peace to Cameroon, and I am very happy for that. I want everybody to come back so that we should not fight again. Let us make peace."

Among the returnees are former separatist fighters like Success Nkongho, who led an armed group called "Ground Zero" before fleeing to Nigeria in October.

He said he returned to Cameroon after the government showed efforts to address the conflict, including October's national dialogue.

"Prior to the national dialogue, I was invited though I did not come there," he said. "Today I am here with other combatants (ex fighters) and refugees, asylum seekers. We have come home, and we wish to say please kindly give us another chance."

Former rebel Leonard Nyambere said he is still in touch with separatists who want to surrender but do not trust authorities' offer of reintegration.

"Some of us (the fighters) think that the government wants to trick us or to kill us," he said. "That is why most of our brothers are still in the forest. My friends and my brothers understand that the Cameroon of yesterday is not the Cameroon of today. Everything cannot be solved by the gun."

On social media, other separatist fighters describe Nyambere and Nkongho as sell-outs to Cameroon’s government and call for their capture.

The former rebels will enter rehabilitation and reintegration programs before being released.

Despite the risk and ongoing conflict, Cameroon authorities are urging the asylum-seekers to return to their homes in the English-speaking, western regions.

Cameroon Territorial Administration Minister Paul Atanga Nji said there is peace in areas where they have been distributing aid, with no attacks from separatist fighters.

"It is a clear indication that there is no humanitarian crisis in Cameroon," he said. "I think about 5,000 families have gone back to the northwest and the southwest regions of Cameroon, which is a clear indication that everything is coming back to normalcy."

But the returnees are staying with relatives in Yaoundé and say they are reluctant to go home until all fighting ends and authorities reconstruct villages and towns destroyed in the conflict.

In December, Cameroon’s parliament gave special status for the English-speaking regions in a further effort to halt the conflict.

The special status creates more elected, local leader positions for the two English-speaking regions. It also cedes some powers to elected mayors, such as authority to recruit hospital staff and teachers.

Unrest erupted in Cameroon's English-speaking regions in 2017 after teachers and lawyers protested discrimination by the country’s French-speaking majority. Cameroon’s military cracked down hard as separatists took up arms.

The UN says the conflict has left at least 3,000 people dead, displaced half a million, and led tens of thousands to flee to neighboring Nigeria.