Armed men attacked a school in Cameroon’s southwestern town of Kumba on Saturday, killing at least four children and wounding at least 15 others.
No one claimed responsibility, but the government blamed separatists who had ordered that schools in the area be closed.
Patrick Ebale, 17, said he was still recovering from the shock of the incident, in which gunmen attacked the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy.
Ebale said students in the school ran in all directions as the gunmen fired indiscriminately into the air.
"There was total confusion around and I had to get into a gutter and hide under a tunnel so as to prevent myself from getting a bullet," he said. "We come from a community where everyone knows each other, and the people attacking us are the same people we associate with. So going to school has not been an easy task."
Chamberlin Ntouou Ndong, the most senior government official in the Meme administrative unit where Kumba is located, said four children were killed on the spot. He said seven of the wounded had been rushed to hospitals and were in critical condition.
Ndong said separatists fighting for the creation of an English-speaking state they call Ambazonia were behind the attack and killings.
"Let me seize this opportunity not only to condemn what has happened but to tell them that we are going to do our best," he said. " ... Let me also seize this opportunity to talk to all the parents. I cannot understand that during the day, the Amba boys are attacking innocent children and the surrounding populations are there witnessing without doing anything."
Warning from separatists
In September, some separatist fighters on social media warned against schools reopening in Cameroon’s English-speaking western regions. The fighters said they could not guarantee children’s safety at schools and asked the central government in Yaounde to withdraw the military if they wanted schools to reopen.
Schools reopened across Cameroon on October 5 after a six-month break triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government said 30,000 English-speaking children had returned to schools despite the lingering threat of violence.
But most schools in northwestern and southwestern Cameroon have been shut down for four years, since the start of the separatists’ fight to carve out an English-speaking state from Cameroon and its French-speaking majority.
Kumba-based teacher Fonban Napoleon said it was wrong to deprive children of their education.
"It is not right to attack schools," he said. " ... I think schools are institutions of learning, and during war there are places that deserve some kind of protection. So it is very wrong for somebody to take weapons and step into an educational institution to fire on students. So we condemn this."
Cameroon’s government said it had deployed more soldiers to protect schools in Kumba and find the killers.
The separatist conflict in Cameroon has left over 3,000 people dead and half a million displaced, according to the United Nations.