BOASSA, CAMEROON - Cameroon's military has begun efforts to implement President Paul Biya's peace resolutions from last week's national dialogue on the country's anglophone separatist crisis, but skepticism lingers as the military is dogged with accusations of rights abuses.
School benches, books and pens were distributed over the weekend, and the military says it is also cleaning towns, repairing broken bridges and roads, and sending medical and teaching staff to help out at hospitals and schools abandoned during the fighting.
Operational Commander Lieutenant Colonel Nkoo Ella said Saturday that it was an effort to build trust after three years of combat against rebels wanting to separate the Northwest and Southwest regions from the rest Cameroon and its French-speaking majority.
"I strongly believe that we are entering the era of peace and I came today to Boassa to confirm that the military are with the population," Ella said. "They need to restart their normal activities, they need to reopen their schools, they need to resend their children to school, they need to restart their economic activities so that all these will help in the development of the area."
Many villagers and farmers from surrounding areas rushed to collect the gifts, showing appreciation for the military's efforts.
Boassa's traditional ruler, John Ewome Eko, spoke on behalf of the population, thanking Biya for sending the military to make peace.
"We are grateful. I am calling on our English-speaking people that please, let peace reign, let our children go back to school, for education is the key to success," Eko said.
But others, like 25-year-old Lydwin Tarkang, were skeptical and cited the military's alleged atrocities committed in the name of fighting the rebels. She says the military killed her father and two older brothers in March 2018, after accusing them of being separatists.
"How can you trust somebody who came yesterday with guns to kill, who burned our schools and houses, raped our children and now he says he is bringing peace? We cannot trust that type of person. Let the military withdraw," Tarkang said.
Human Rights Watch in March accused both the military and the separatists of committing gross human rights abuses, such as kidnapping and killing people and torching buildings. Both sides deny responsibility, and point the finger of blame at each other.
Last week, a national dialogue organized by Biya to end the conflict called on the military and armed separatists to drop their weapons and turn security over to police.
Separatists mostly boycotted the event, saying the government should first release separatist leaders given lifetime prison sentences by a military tribunal.
Saibou Issa, a conflict resolution specialist at the University of Maroua, headed the dialogue's disarmament, reconstruction and reintegration commission. He says it will be difficult to see the military withdraw because criminal gangs are now operating with impunity in the conflict zones.
"Criminal economy [has] developed," Issa said. "Many people who are joining are not going there for ideological reasons only. These are the things that the army fights. Those who are suffering more is the population because what is destroyed is their property, what is looted is their property."
Violence erupted in Cameroon's English-speaking regions in 2016 when teachers and lawyers protested second-class treatment at the hands of French speakers. The government responded with a crackdown that sparked an armed movement for an independent, English-speaking state.
The United Nations says at least 2,000 people have been killed in the fighting, and half a million internally displaced.