YAOUNDE, CAMEROON - Cameroon's military is taking 55 truckloads of humanitarian aid to its English-speaking regions, amid heavy clashes with separatist forces that have killed at least 25 people in the past two weeks.
A crowd of about 200 is gathered in central Yaounde to witness 40 trucks, most of them belonging to the military, depart with humanitarian assistance to the troubled English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions.
Among them is teacher Peter Siwe and his wife and three children, who escaped fighting in the town of Kumbo and have been in Yaounde for over a year. Siwe, who has been jobless, says he thought the food, medical supplies and mattresses were to be distributed in Yaounde.
What Cameroon really needs, he says, is for the government to resolve the crisis so people can return and build their communities.
"For how long will you keep feeding the people?" he asked. "What should be on the spotlight now is resolving the crisis so that people can go back home. They will continue to work their farms, continue to go to the market. I see people who can barely feed now. People who were well to do, people who have been frustrated, but they are ready to go back home."
Forces wanting to separate the English-speaking regions from majority Francophone Cameroon have been fighting the government since 2017.
This week, Cameroon's military reported that clashes had killed at least 11 separatists in the town of Jakiri, six in Wum, four in Nkambe and three in Mamfe. Residents said the casualties were higher than reported by the government and that at least five troops were also killed.
Controversy over military
Peter Saju, traditional ruler of the northwestern village of Misong and spokesperson for people displaced from his village to Yaounde, says he does not have confidence the military — which he accuses of excessive violence — can distribute aid effectively.
"In as much as the state wants to come in with the soldiers, the lacking link is the presence of the chiefs. Chiefs have suffered, some have been killed. Some palaces have been burned, some farms have been taken. We are begging the forces of law and order to look at the cessation of violence. Then dialogue starts," Saju said.
Paul Atanga Nji, Cameroon's minister of territorial administration, insists the soldiers are best equipped to distribute the aid.
"We have military trucks because not only they have to protect the convoys, but they are part of the distribution machine because the military also do distribution in remote areas where we do not have access," Nji said. "This is a clear example that the government has always taken this problem seriously."
Cameroon accuses international NGOs of exaggerating the crisis in the country's two English-speaking regions to give an impression it is not doing enough to solve the crisis.
The United Nations estimates at least 1,800 people have been killed and more than 530,000 displaced since fighting broke out in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions in 2017.