BAMENDA, CAMEROON - Hundreds of women gathered on the streets of Bamenda, an English-speaking town in northwestern Cameroon, to protest the violence afflicting their communities. In an emotionally charged event Friday, they called on the government and armed separatists to lay down their guns and engage in meaningful dialogue for peace.
Thirty-seven-year old Etta Ernestine cried as she told the crowd of women gathered that she lost her husband in the war in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon two weeks ago and does not know how she will be able to bring up their three children. She said she has seen students, farmers, civil servants and cattle ranchers killed.
Distraught, many of the women at the protest were crying, saying that it was time for a dialogue to be held to put an end to the bloodshed.
Among them was 42-year old Camela Itoh who said she wanted the world to know she has lost her only baby and husband, and that her residence was torched by either the military or armed fighters three months ago in the northwestern town of Mbengui. She begged for the carnage to stop.
"Let’s not destroy what we cannot produce nor make. Children cannot even go to school. Daddy, have mercy on your people," she pleaded, in an apparent reference to God.
In November 2017, President Paul Biya declared war on people he called secessionists after armed men attacked and killed policemen and soldiers in English-speaking southwestern Cameroon.
Cameroon’s government reports that about 300 civilians and more than a hundred soldiers and policemen have been killed since then. At least 130 schools have been torched and a hundred villages razed.
‘We are wailing’
Pamela Mundi came out to ask for peace to return because she lost her parents in the conflict in January in the southwestern town of Lebialem. She said both government forces and armed separatists have been committing atrocities and should drop their guns to allow for peace to return.
"We are wailing to cleanse our land. We are wailing for the children who have died in the bushes. We are wailing for our husbands who are in the military. We are wailing for everyone who has died," Mundi said.
Cameroon communication minister and government spokesperson Issa Tchiroma says the government cannot withdraw its troops that are legitimately defending the population from armed separatist attacks. He says President Biya will never tolerate lawlessness even though he agrees with the women that dialogue should continue as a solution to the crisis in the restive areas of Cameroon.
"The head of state has never and can never remain dormant to any claim expressed by his fellow compatriots. It should be noted that in the management of this situation, the security forces were effectively deployed with the constant aim of restoring peace and order," Tchiroma said.
Unrest began in Cameroon in November 2016 when English-speaking teachers and lawyers in the northwest and southwest called for reforms and greater autonomy. They marched in the streets, criticizing what they called the marginalization of English speakers by French speakers. Separatists took over the protests and demanded independence for the English-speaking regions from the French-speaking regions of the country.
In June, rights group Amnesty International accused both the Cameroon military and separatists fighting for the independence of using unnecessary and excessive force. The rights group said civilians are frequently caught up in the violence.
The United Nations reports that hundreds of thousands of people have fled for their lives to the bushes and towns in the French-speaking regions. At least 20,000 have crossed over into Nigeria.