Narratives of Displacement: The Broken Lives of the Cameroons’ War Victims

In a dimly lit shack in a marshy neighbourhood in Yaounde, Mary (not her real name) boils some rice in a little pot. It was offered to her by a local organization that cares for Internally Displaced Persons. Mary is not sure she would be able to have another kilogram of rice to boil the next day to feed her family of thirteen.

Hers is a broken life. Mary’s husband and younger brother were killed, and she watched her older sister being raped when soldiers attacked her home in Batibo in the troubled North West Region nine months ago. She fled, along with her kids to Yaounde-with nothing other than the clothes they were wearing. But her troubles were not over.

While some battle it out in towns in French-speaking Cameroon, thousands of other Southern Cameroons IDPs still live in Forests, receiving various forms of assistance right there (C) United Methodist News Services

“One man welcomed us to his home. We thought at last, we could catch some sleep after several months hiding in bushes and finally escaping to Yaounde. But the man wanted to have sex with me as a precondition for staying in his house. When I refused, he threw us out of his home,” she told Timescape Magazine.

Mary and her family resorted to sleeping in bars and other open spaces for some months, before she was able, with the help of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), to secure the shack in which she and her family now call home.

“It’s been hard,” she says. “The kids can’t go to school. We have to depend on charity for the basics that make life worth living: food, clothing, and shelter,” she told Timescape Magazine as hot tears burst through.

It is the consequence of four years of fighting between the government and pro-independence armed groups who say they want to restore the autonomy of the Once Independent State of Southern Cameroons and rename it Ambazonia.

What started as a civil society movement led by teachers and lawyers in 2017 morphed into political violence when government responded with excessive force, and it left citizens of the Former UN Trust Territory demanding independence.

At least 3000 people (some estimates put the figure as high as 12,000) have been killed and over a million forced from their homes. In 2019, the mainly French-speaking Cameroon government organized a major national dialogue to resolve the crisis.

The dialogue came up with a number of recommendations, including the granting of a special status to the war-torn region, the reconstruction of over 400 village settlements burnt down by the army that is pursuing a scorched earth policy, as well as the enhancement of bilingualism in the country.

George Ewane, the Spokesman for the dialogue now says most of the recommendations have been implemented.

“You have the Bilingualism Commission which is afoot; you have the creation of the DDR centre that has welcomed over 600 ex-combatants, has demobilized them, has disarmed them, and is re-integrating them into mainstream society. You have the creation of the Presidential Plan for the Recovery or Reconstruction of the North West and South West Regions…the most important thing as I speak to you now is the regional elections. After the Regional Elections, you have the putting in place of the Special Status for the North West and South West Regions, where you have a regional House of Representatives, a House of Chiefs. These are nostalgic houses that the Former Southern Cameroons had in those days, and which the separatists want reinstated, and the government has obliged.”

A key offshoot of the dialogue is a $160 million recovery and reconstruction plan for the Anglophone regions. The money is earmarked to rebuild or repair 350 schools, 90 health centers, 40 bridges, and over 12,000 homes.

“We’ve done a deep analysis of who lost, and possibly who lost what. We have the government itself who lost enormously…We have associations and cooperatives like the Churches who own a lot of schools, who own a lot of health units in the two regions; and most importantly, we have individuals and households who lost, so we have procedures for all these categories of actors to be able to help us verify and ascertain that they effectively lost before we proceed to accompany them. Right now, we are updating the data,” said Paul Tasong, Coordinator of the Presidential Plan for the Reconstruction and Development of the North West and South-West regions in an exclusive interview with Timescape Magazine.

Human Rights lawyer and critic, Barrister Felix Agbor Balla has picked holes in the implementation of the dialogue resolutions.

“In terms of the implementation of the major recommendations, a lot has not been done. I look at the special status, for example, and reconstruction. Special status was an empty shell that was given for the content to be filled, but what content is in the special status? I hear people talk about regional elections, but these things existed in the constitution prior to the conflict. So, to me, it’s nothing much.”

The dialogue was completely dismissed by about all the pro-independence groups as a monologue in which the Cameroon government “dialogued with itself” on account of the kind of people who sat through the sessions. The sessions were mainly run by government officials and pro-independence movement leaders or their representatives could not attend because the government issued and continued to hold international arrest warrants against them.

Barrister Goeffred Andang, Secretary-General of the Civil Society Consortium that led the charge in 2016 told Timescape Magazine that “That whole monologue and its resolutions do not in any way move us an inch towards the resolution of this conflict which is territorial in nature. Real business will begin when the government of Cameroon pulls its occupational forces out of Southern Cameroons and meet us on the negotiation table, through third-party mediation”.    

The Cameroon government outlawed The Consortium, alongside the Southern Cameroons National Council (SCNC) on January 17, 2017 and started a manhunt of leaders and members of the movements.  

For Mary, all that matters now is a return to peace, so she can be able to pick up the pieces of her broken life.