Cameroonians swept up in a conflict between anglophone separatists and the government are facing a humanitarian crisis, aid groups say as they struggle to reach people in remote areas that have become virtually off-limits.
They have “numerous humanitarian needs”, said Allegra Maria Del Pilar Baiocchi, the UN’s humanitarian coordinator for Cameroon. “Beyond the violence, (the crisis) has an impact on health, on employment,” she told AFP.
Separatist ambitions have long simmered in two minority anglophone regions in the west of the country, where people complain of being marginalised by the French-speaking elite. The push for separation was galvanised by a heavy deployment of government troops last August, spurring a low-intensity conflict with sporadic attacks on symbols of the state.
“As with any armed conflict, civilians suffer the consequences of the violence, insecurity and fear,” said Alberto Jodra Marcos, who heads the Swiss branch of the humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Cameroon.
According to UN estimates, tens of thousands of people are internally displaced in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, a one-time German colony that was divided between France and Britain after World War I.
In the worst-hit areas of Mamfe and Kumba in the southwest, some 40,000 people are estimated to have fled their homes.
But some fear the numbers affected could be much greater, with one humanitarian worker saying it was impossible to quantify the displacement given the limited access. The government has imposed curfews on civilians in both regions, and aid groups are rarely allowed in.
“It’s difficult for organisations like ours to carry out missions on the ground,” said Agbor Bala Nkongho, director of the NGO Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa. “We are in a war situation. We can’t send people everywhere.”
As well as those who are internally displaced, many Cameroonians have fled the violence to neighbouring Nigeria. SEMA, a Nigerian relief agency, said some 34,000 have taken refuge in Nigeria’s Cross River State.
The state has said it will set up and fund a refugee camp with UN backing, but for now local communities are sheltering the majority of the Cameroonian refugees, according to SEMA chief John Inaku. “The situation is very difficult for us,” said Peter Kechi, the village chief of Bashu, which is some five kilometres (three miles) from the border and whose population has ballooned from 1,500 to 4,000 in a few months.
“We are taking refugees into our homes and our bedrooms, with sometimes 20 people sleeping in the same room,” Kechi said.
Locals say the refugees cross the border on foot through heavily forested mountainous areas, making it difficult to record their arrival. The UN has registered 20,485 Cameroonians in Nigeria, according to Baiocchi, who added that “the arrivals are continuing”.
Following a fact-finding mission in Cameroon’s anglophone regions, “we know more or less where the needs are… the next step is how to respond to them,” she said, reached by telephone from the Gabonese capital Libreville. Jodra Marcos of MSF said its workers had carried out training on how to care for the “wounded and traumatised” and donated medicines and equipment in anglophone areas.
However, “many communities (are) in a precarious situation” after staff have fled and some clinics have closed, he noted. Separatists have been blamed for the torching of schools in the areas, while aid groups and residents also regularly accuse the army of carrying out abuses against civilians.
Early this month a human rights activist charged that soldiers killed several civilians by setting fire to their homes. A security source, for his part, accused “some aid groups” of spreading disinformation. The government in Yaounde has repeatedly denied accusations of excessive violence and extortion.
Source: France 24