BABUNGO, CAMEROON - Several communities in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions have within a week attacked at least five camps belonging to separatist fighters, whom they accuse of destroying civilian homes, looting and killing innocent people. The angry civilians say they do not know who to trust, as they say the military commits similar crimes against them.
A group of 150 women and children in the northwestern village of Babungo sing a song against anglophone rebels.
They sing that they will together fight the separatists, who they say have been abusing villagers.
The leader of the group, 55-year-old farmer Mary Najela, says rebels in December accused her husband of helping Cameroon’s military and then killed him.
Najela says they are saying no to separatists’ plans to either eliminate all of them or see them suffer. She says all of them, including women and children, must work together to protect each other and their property.
The women and children on Tuesday sang and marched to the house of their local, traditional ruler, Ndofua Zofia.
Villagers saved him from being abducted on Monday night by seven rebel fighters, who they managed to chase off.
Zofia says he is grateful to his people and angry with the rebels, who say they are fighting for the rights of English-speaking Cameroonians.
"Why should my people and I be tortured like this?" he asks. "The rebels have abducted candidates for the local council and parliamentary elections, looted, collected ransoms, and killed civilians. Enough is enough."
Babungo is not the only anglophone village in Cameroon with growing anti-separatist feelings over rebel abuses. Authorities, local media reports, and a rebel spokesman confirmed villagers have been attacking separatist camps.
Last week, people from the English-speaking village of Balikumbat stormed rebel camps and seized their guns, along with items stolen from them, including goats and cows.
The villagers say the retaliation was sparked after rebels stole a taxi driver’s motorcycle because he refused to give them $10 in support.
Cameroon’s rebels have confirmed their fighters committed abuses.
On Sunday, separatist fighters in the southwestern town of Kumba killed their commander, say local media reports, because he ordered them to torture civilians.
Tapang Ivo Tanku is a U.S.-based spokesman for one rebel group — the Anglophone Defense Forces. Speaking via WhatsApp, he says they have ordered their fighters, who he calls soldiers, to arrest anyone who abuses villagers, including fellow rebels.
“We are strongly condemning all of these soldiers [fighters] who are turning their weapons against civilians or who are stealing civilians’ properties and not protecting civilians. This is adversely affecting the revolution [struggle for independence],” he said.
But Tanku also accused the government of often framing rebels to tarnish the image of those fighting for the independence of English-speaking regions from French-majority Cameroon.
Governor of the English-speaking Northwest region, Deben Tchoffo, denies any such manipulation.
He says government troops are gaining public confidence and working to bring peace.
"The security forces, the administration, the traditional rulers and the entire population are doing their best to bring back normal, civil life. We are enjoying relative calm, even if we still have hot spots," he said.
Rights groups accuse both Cameroon’s military and separatists of using excessive force during three years of armed conflict.
Unrest broke out in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions in 2016, when teachers and lawyers protested the dominance of the French language and French-speaking officials.
Rebels took up arms a year later, demanding a separate English-speaking state they call “Ambazonia.”
The conflict with Cameroon’s military since then has killed about 3,000 people, many of them villagers caught up in the fighting.