Hundreds of Cameroonians displaced by the country’s separatist crisis, especially along the Nigerian border, have, with the new year, returned to their communities for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, now in its fourth year.
Humanitarian groups, churches and local councils have been giving aid to returnees in need. The returnees tell stories of their mistreatment in the hands of both the military and separatist fighters, but both the troops and separatist deny wrongdoing.
About 300 people displaced by Cameroon’s separatist conflict assembled in the English-speaking town of Mamfe, 30 miles east of the Nigerian border, to receive food and mattresses from the government and humanitarian agencies.
Mamfe’s mayor, Robertson Tabechong Ashu, says among the 300 are 120 civilians returning from Nigeria. He spoke on Cameroon state media CRTV.
“During the crisis, these people were seriously touched. They traveled to Nigeria for safety and today they have come back because of the peace and serenity and apart from this, they have also registered in the presidential plan for reconstruction and development. That means their household equipment will be given back to them,” said Ashu.
Ashu said Cameroon’s government convinced the people who fled the fighting to come home, as peace is gradually returning to their villages. He said those displaced and returnees will benefit from a government reconstruction plan.
In April, the government announced what it called the Presidential Plan for the Reconstruction and Development of the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions. The reconstruction and development plan envisages the construction and equipping of 12,000 private homes and public buildings destroyed by four years of fighting.
Last month, Cameroon announced lawmakers had approved funding for the plan but did not give further details.
Cameroon said the people returned from Nigerian border towns and villages including Agadom, Mfum, Uyo and Aba within the past two weeks.
Their spokesperson, 38-year-old teacher Elvira Arrey, said they hope to find peace and to be spared from both military and separatist fighters’ brutality while at home. He spoke via a messaging app from Mamfe.
“The military, in the search for these separatists, brutalized the population, burned their shops, asked women to undress and all of that. Secondly, even when the population wants to collaborate with the government to unveil the identity or the whereabouts of these separatists, the separatists find out somehow and they [fighters] come after the population and kill the individuals who reported them. There is lack of trust,” said Arrey.
General Eba Eba Benoit, commander of Cameroon military fighting separatists in the English-speaking South-West region denies that his troops brutalize civilians.
“Our mission is to secure the populations and their belongings and to make sure that our territory is safe,” said Benoit.
Benoit blamed separatists for the abuses committed on civilians. Separatists said on social media that fighters protect civilians and those returning from military brutality. The separatists encourage people returning but warn them against collaborating with the military and the central government in Yaoundé.
Security analyst Pierre Akomone of the University of Yaoundé says relative peace is returning only to major English-speaking southwestern cities such as Limbe, Buea, Kumba and the northwestern towns of Bamenda and Nkambe.
“When you navigate to the suburbs of these regions, you will discover the president of the republic [Paul Biya] relies so much on military might in order to maintain this gradual peace, and we all know that it will be time-consuming, and a lot of human lives will be lost in the process,” said Akomone. “So, why should we [Cameroon] apply all these options when there are other options which can bring complete and immediate peace and that is by declaring a cease-fire which will be proceeded by a dialogue?”
Cameroon says fighters have a choice between dropping their weapons and being pardoned or being killed by the military if they continue to fight.
The United Nations says the Cameroonian conflict has killed more than 3,000 people, with about half a million forced from their homes. Cameroon said about 50,000 residents escaped to neighboring Nigeria from where they are now returning.