BUEA, CAMEROON - Large numbers of English-speaking Cameroonians who fled the separatist crisis that has killed more than 3,000 people in three years have been returning to their homes to celebrate the Christmas and New Year holidays. Their return however is limited to major English-speaking towns as their villages remain battle grounds for separatist fighters and the military.
About 300 Christians sing Christmas carols at the Roman Catholic Church in the English-speaking southwestern town of Kumba during this year's holiday. It is the first time in three years that the church has seen such a crowd of worshipers. Last year barely 70 attended the Christmas day church service here.
Among the Christians who have just returned to the town is 50-year-old business man Divine Ekale. Ekale escaped to the nearby French-speaking town of Douala with his wife and four children in December 2017, when clashes between the military and separatist fighters killed 13 people. He said he has decided to return because he and his family can not continue to rely on gifts from well-wishes for survival when they can return to Kumba and run their family jewelry shop business.
"The effects of the crisis have been devastating. It is time to rise and turn our backs on the crisis. Our Division [administrative area] needs to move ahead, our children need to go to school," he said.
Ekale said he was abducted in December 2017 by the fighters who accused him of collaborating with the military by revealing information on the separatists hideouts. His family paid a ransom of more than $2000 before he was released.
Anthony Yuh, pastor of Divine Ministries, a Kumba-based church that also welcomed returnees on Christmas day, says he and his clergy peers decided to preach on reconciliation and forgiveness.
"We need peace, we need love and we need forgiveness and so Jesus Christ being the prince of peace, has come with that peace so that we may experience life in abundance," he said.
Cameroon's Ministry of Transport reported that large numbers of people were traveling to the English-speaking regions this December, but that they were ending only in major towns like Bamenda, Kumbo, Ndop and Nkambe in the Northwest region and Limbe, Buea, Kumba, Mamfe, Mutengene and Tiko in the Southwest region. It did not give details on how many people had returned.
Peter Njume, a lawmaker from the English-speaking Southwest region, says most people are refusing to go to villages occupied by separatist fighters. He said civilians fear being caught in fighting between the military and the separatists. Njume said some civilians who have been very vocal in the media advocating for separatists to drop their guns and surrender can not return to their villages where they may be attacked by the fighters.
"I am a target. I would not want the military to come to my compound and be living there while the other people are staying without the security that I would have," said Njume.
Bernard Okalia Bilai, governor of Cameroon's English- speaking Southwest region said people are returning because they are tired of the crisis, which has lasted close to three years. He said the military has also made huge gains in restoring peace to most affected towns and villages. Bilai said people should not be afraid of going to any parts of the English-speaking regions.
"Everything is ready to welcome them. They should not be afraid. Many stake holders, the politicians, the elite, the religious leaders, welcome them and with the support of the government, the security measures is reinforced by the entire population. The population has said enough is enough," he said.
But most of the villages are either completely razed by the fighting or abandoned and need to be rehabilitated. Others host separatists who have fled from towns
Separatists launched attacks on government troops in 2017 stating that they wanted to create an English-speaking state in the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of the country. They complained of an overbearing influence of the French-speaking majority.
The government organized what it called a grand national dialogue from September 30 to October 4 to solve the crisis.
Bilai claimed the massive return of civilians was because they were happy with the outcome of the dialogue that proposed a special status for the two English-speaking regions with elected presidents and vice presidents and additional powers to mayors.
Separatists rejected the proposed special status, saying they want nothing but an independent state.
The United Nations reports the crisis has killed at least 3, 000 people and displaced more than 500,000 others, with about 50,000 as refugees in the neighboring Nigeria.