People living with disabilities in Cameroon’s Anglophone northwest and southwest regions have been badly affected by a deadly separatist crisis. Some have been killed, wounded, or abandoned, while others have been forced out of their homes.
Nearly four years into the violence, this group faces heightened danger of attacks because most of them find it difficult to flee when their communities come under assault.
At the conference room of the coordinating unit of associations of persons living with disabilities in the Anglophone northwest, 45-year-old Samuel Nyingcho, head of the unit. He has been living with vision loss for the past 33 years. He tells RFI that the challenges facing people living with disabilities in these regions are unbearable.
“A good number of persons with disabilities have lost their lives, a good number of them have lost property, their houses have been burnt…Almost all of them have lost economic activities and good number of them have lost access to education,” he says.
“Equally, the non-communicable diseases like hypertension and other diseases have affected persons with disabilities because of the trauma that has affected them throughout all of this crisis,” Nyingcho adds.
In a report published earlier this year by Human Rights Watch, the group said people living with disabilities and older people have been among those killed, violently assaulted, or kidnapped by government forces and armed separatists in the conflict torn northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon.
Peaceful protests that were carried out in late 2016 by Anglophone lawyers and teachers against perceived marginalisation by the French-speaking central government were met with a brutal crackdown by security forces.
The following year, some disgruntled English speakers took up arms against the state to create their own separate state from Cameroon which they will call ‘Ambazonia’ after what they say are decades of marginalisation.
As a consequence of the violence, several persons living with disabilities in the conflict areas have been traumatised. Many others took long journeys in search of safety when their communities came under assault.
Wearing a violet blue t-shirt, slim fit black trousers, and violet tennis shoes, 29-year-old law graduate Sheron, (not her real name), sits in her electric wheelchair at the headquarters of an organisation here in Bamenda were she now volunteers. ‘Sheron’ has been living with mobility difficulties for more than 15 years as a result of childhood polio.
She told RFI that the government forces stormed her native Bafut town, about 23km northwest of Bamenda earlier this year. They were looking for separatist fighters, commonly known here as Amba boys. In the process, many people were brutalised, some shot dead and property destroyed.
“We only heard that there were many trucks at the junction with many soldiers. A few minutes later, we started hearing serious gunshots. I could not run but we saw many young people running into the bush,” she says.
“My sister then took me out of my wheelchair put me on her back and started running to the bush. We even fell twice and she was pregnant and had some complications during birth. We spent two days in the bush without my wheelchair, food nor water,” Sheron adds.
The story of Sheron is not unusal for residents of the northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon. Many, especially in the rural communities, have been through similar experiences since the crisis became an armed struggle in 2017.
“A good number of them have fled the villages into the safe areas in the urban towns and that has made life for them very difficult. There are some who stayed in the bush more than one month and there are some who have even been raped,” Nyingcho says.
“There are some who have been sexually harassed and there are a good number that have trekked long distances in the bush to be able to get to where they are,” he adds.
According to the United Nations, over four million people have been affected by the crisis in the Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions and amongst them are people living with disabilities some of whom are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
Lack of assistance makes it harder
But Nyingcho says more than 95 percent of people living with disabilities do not have access to mainstream humanitarian provisions in the conflict zones, thus making life even more difficult.
Sisterspeak 237, an organization that projects the voices of women and minority groups in Cameroon, is appealing to the humanitarian agencies and other actors operating in the conflict zones, says coordinator comfort Mussa.
“Because of the ongoing crisis, we are witnessing an increase in the number of people with disabilities. There are many people who have lost an arm and leg..you know..They have lost one or more body parts. and there are people who have become blind,” Musa says.
She adds that “it is very disheartening to see that even when they have lost some of these senses, and body parts and now are living with one or more impairments,” she adds.
As Sheron and her siblings fled to Bamenda, their journey under normal circumstances would have taken less than an hour, but unfortunately for them, it took them about 48 hours, Sheron says.
“From Bafut to Bamenda, we took two days because the first day we left the house, we reached at a certain point where there were gunshots, so some inhabitants around had to give us a place for us to spend the night and the roads were blocked in a way that I could not use my wheel chair .My siblings had to carry me on their back and if this person is tired, the other person will take over,” she adds.
RFI asked the Cameroonian Ministry of Social Affairs to address the issues rais’ed by this report, but the ministry refused to comment.