YAOUNDE - Cameroon authorities are searching for more than 130 former separatist fighters who recently escaped from disarmament, demobilization and re-integration centers. The ex-rebels had turned themselves in to the rehabilitation centers but later escaped after complaints about poor facilities and a shortage of basic needs. Despite their initial voluntary surrender, Cameroon authorities still consider the former rebels a security threat.
General Valere Nka, commander of Cameroon troops fighting separatists has threatened to kill any ex-rebels who again take up weapons against the state of Cameroon. But he says the ex-fighters will be pardoned if they return to disarmament, demobilization and re-integration centers.
"The security and defense forces are here to protect them," he said. "We need collaboration to succeed in this operation because we have to win hearts and minds. Many Ambazonians [separatist fighters] have been misled. Let them drop their weapons, we take them to the DDR [Demobilization Centers] and then they [fighters] come to normal life."
The operation to bring back ex-fighters and encourage those who are still reluctant to drop their weapon is carried out on local media. Messages on the functioning of the centers are also shared on social media.
The Cameroon government says some 130 ex-fighters recently escaped from the re-integration centers. Local newspapers report that 250 former rebels escaped and returned to the bush, where they hide to commit atrocities. VOA could not independently confirm the number of ex-fighters who have escaped.
But former fighters have been sharing video messages on social media asking their runaway peers to return to the rehabilitation centers. In the videos, the ex-rebels say the conditions at the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Centers have improved. The videos explain that there is enough food, agriculture, livestock and carpentry training facilities to enable the former fighters to have revenue generating activities in the future.
Emmanuel Verli, a former fighter at the disarmament center in the northwestern town of Bamenda, says the military does not torture ex-rebels to get information. He says information about harassment and at times killing of ex-fighters who surrender is shared on social media by separatists to discourage rebels who want to surrender.
He says social media information that the military has killed some ex fighters is fake news. He says separatists who have not handed themselves to the Cameroon government want to intoxicate the minds of fighters who are ready to surrender. He says such information should not scare young fighters who have just joined the demobilization centers and are still to know how the centers function. He says he is already learning how to repair computers and hopes to earn a living from it in the future.
Francis Fai Yengo, director of Cameroon Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, says increased military presence at the centers in recent weeks is to protect the ex-fighters from separatists. Yengo says Cameroon President Paul Biya has asked for the improvement of facilities at all centers for the reintegration of former fighters. He spoke on Cameroon state media CRTV.
"We are completing a center in Bamenda which can take about a thousand persons [ex fighters]," he said. "The one in Buea, they are going to start construction in the days ahead. When those centers are complete, we will train all of them [ex fighters]. I have sent enough means, financial means for them to eat three time a day and they go to hospitals and so on, but the intoxicators are there to say it is a prison, a concentration camp and they [military] are going to kill them [ex fighters]"
President Biya in December 2018 created a National Committee for Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of former Boko Haram fighters in the far north, and former separatist fighters in northwest and southwest regions.
The government said the committee was created to assist all former fighters who heeded Biya's call to drop their guns and be pardoned.
Cameroon says about 300 former separatist fighters are still being care for at the disarmament centers in the northwestern town of Bamenda and the southwestern town of Buea.
The four-year long separatist crisis has killed more than 3,000 people and displaced 500,000 others according to the United Nations.