Conflict in Cameroon: The schools caught in crossfire

In 2017, Pastor Boniface Tamangoua chose not to send his eight-year-old son, Victory Camibon, to school. It was too dangerous, he thought. The family lived in Kumba, in southwest Cameroon, and that year fighting broke out between the government and rebels demanding independence for English-speaking Cameroon.

The next year, Tamangoua decided to send Victory to a school in Littoral, the French-speaking province where the economic hub, Douala, is located. His son would be far away, but at least he would be getting an education — and he would be safe. In 2019, there was a lull in the fighting. Tamangoua brought his son home, where he completed primary school.

This year, Victory — now 11 — started at a new school: the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba. On October 24, at least nine armed men arrived at the school’s campus. They broke into a classroom and opened fire on the students. Children screamed and ran for their lives. By the time the gunmen were finished, seven children were dead and 13 were injured.

Victory Camibon did not come home that day. 

“It was our neighbour’s son who attends the same school with my son who came rolling on the floor and crying that Victory is dead,” Tamangoua told Mail & Guardian. “I was helping my wife wash clothes because she is recovering from surgery. When she heard about her son’s death, she collapsed.” 

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, with both the separatists and the government blaming each other. “This massacre is a grim reminder of the horrific toll that the crisis in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions has had on children and their education,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. 

President Paul Biya reacted to the incident two days later, in a tweet. “I have also instructed that appropriate measures be taken diligently to ensure that the perpetrators of these despicable acts are apprehended by our defence and security forces and brought to justice,” he said.  

Children have been targeted repeatedly during the conflict. In February this year, 14 children were among the 22 people killed in a massacre in the village of Ngarbuh, allegedly carried out by state security forces. Separatists have called for English-speaking parents not to send their children to school, as a protest against the institutional inequalities that they believe are baked into the national curriculum. 

Over the past three years, dozens of schools have been damaged in attacks. Last year, the United Nations children’s agency Unicef said that 80% of schools in the affected areas are shut, and more than half a million children have no access to education.

Victory Camibon did not come home that day. “It was our neighbour’s son who attends the same school with my son who came rolling on the floor and crying that Victory is dead,” Tamangoua told Mail & Guardian. “I was helping my wife wash clothes because she is recovering from surgery. When she heard about her son’s death, she collapsed.” 

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, with both the separatists and the government blaming each other. “This massacre is a grim reminder of the horrific toll that the crisis in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions has had on children and their education,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. 

President Paul Biya reacted to the incident two days later, in a tweet. “I have also instructed that appropriate measures be taken diligently to ensure that the perpetrators of these despicable acts are apprehended by our defence and security forces and brought to justice,” he said.

Children have been targeted repeatedly during the conflict. In February this year, 14 children were among the 22 people killed in a massacre in the village of Ngarbuh, allegedly carried out by state security forces. Separatists have called for English-speaking parents not to send their children to school, as a protest against the institutional inequalities that they believe are baked into the national curriculum. 

Over the past three years, dozens of schools have been damaged in attacks. Last year, the United Nations children’s agency Unicef said that 80% of schools in the affected areas are shut, and more than half a million children have no access to education.

Although some separatist leaders have now called for students to resume their education, the attacks have continued. In this week alone, 11 teachers were taken hostage by an armed group in Kumbo, a town in the Anglophone northwest region, and have yet to be released; students in a school in Limbe in the southwest were stripped naked by gunmen who threatened to burn them alive if they ever came to school again.

As the news of the Limbe attack spread, students began to flee school premises and teachers shut down campuses. In Kumba, parents are once again having to assess whether it is safe enough to send their children to school at all. Interior Minister Paul Atanga Nji has visited Kumba, promising to provide a military guard for the school. But few parents are convinced. 

Grace, who asked to be identified only by her first name, is a mother of two children. She has decided to withdraw them from the school in Kumba. “I thought school was returning to [Kumba] for good since more than three years now. But I’m not convinced. I will only send my children to Douala again,” she said.

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Daniel Ekonde
Daniel Ekonde is a journalist/sports journalist who writes on African sports, human interest and culture. He lives in Cameroon.

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