It's hard to be a child in Cameroon. Widespread poverty and state neglect hurt the youngest most. Children in the English-speaking region now have to contend with a new enemy: separatists attacking their own people.
In the fight for independencefrom the Francophone majority, separatists in the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon have turned on their own children. A series of kidnappings of pupils and teachers, which culminated in the abduction of 170 children in Kumbo last weekend, forced a shutdown of all schools.
Roman Catholic Bishop George Nkuo told DW, ''They wanted to make a point. There should be no school in the entire division. We were the only school operating, so, for our punishment, they brought the children to where they brought them, as a sign that we've disobeyed them.''
The children were released a day later, after the Catholic school bowed to the separatists' pressure and closed its doors. Some of the children had been abused and even tortured, according to a statement by the government in the northwest region where the kidnapping took place.
Human rights abuses by all sides
"They are using children as a bargaining chip, which is not only immoral but also illegal,'' Jonathan Pedneault of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told DW. The non-governmental organization has been documenting attacks by self-proclaimed Anglophone separatists against schools and children since 2016.
While HRW could not confirm that abuse was committed against the children kidnapped in Kumbo, other cases are well documented: ''They have beaten people who were kidnapped or under their custody. They have also attacked workers on banana plantations, chopping off their hands and fingers,'' Pedneault said.
Children in Cameroon are scared. In places like Kumbo, the situation is serious, 16-year-old Rosaline told DW. ''They are burning houses. They are kidnapping students.'' Rosaline left behind her parents and friends and fled from Kumbo to Bamenda in order to be able to go to school. Far from home, she says ''life is difficult.'' Among other things, Rosaline complains that in Bamenda, where she is staying with her aunts, there is never enough to eat.
Life is hard for many children in Cameroon. According to the United Nations children's fund UNICEF, there are 2.3 million children in need in the country. One in every three minors suffers from malnutrition. The latest statistics of the World Health Organization (WHO) show that 74 out of 1,000 children die before the age of five. Girls have to deal with the added torture of female genital mutilation (FGM) and many are married off long before they reach adulthood.
The crisis has deprived hundreds of thousands of children of the chance of an education, which is widely recognized as the best way out of poverty. Repeated school lockdowns are perceived as a threat by 17-year-old Tracy, who fears that the teachers may not be able to finish the syllabus. The bitter irony of the separatists' attacks is not lost on her: ''This crisis has also reduced my vocabulary in English.''
Impunity for the perpetrators
The children cannot expect any help or protection from President Paul Biya. ''The response of the government has been one of abuse from day one,'' says HRW's Jonathan Pedneault. Peaceful protesters have been shot, their leaders arrested, and civilians targeted, ''causing a very severe humanitarian crisis,'' including 500,000 displaced people in one year. Separatists turning against their own people are playing into the hands of the government: ''One key method of counter insurgency is 'conquer and divide','' Pedneault said.
The international community is reluctant to put pressure on Paul Biya. He is seen as a trusted ally in the fight against the jihadist group Boko Haram in the Lake Chad area and provides valuable logistical aid to the UN stabilization missions in the area. ''That has translated into a lack of international criticism.
The problem is that it sends all the wrong signals to decision makers both in Yaounde and within the Anglophone group, who think they can get away scot free,'' Pedneault said. He would like to see Germany take on a more active role: ''Germany has a history in Cameroon and I think it is a voice that would be welcomed by a number of actors on the ground.''
Children robbed of their future
What makes the whole situation even more tragic for the children of the English-speaking regions is the fact that, before the crisis, this was a relatively well-developed area of the country. ''There was a lot of economic activity, especially in the southwest, with lots of jobs, including for youth,'' Pedneault said. The crisis has severely disrupted the economy. Separatists have been attacking key economic sectors like banana plantations and forestry.
For its part, ''the government has imposed internet bans which disrupted the emerging technological industry in the southwest. And it has been targeting youths as well: a lot of taxi motorcycles have been confiscated by government soldiers,'' Pedneault said, adding: ''This is creating a cycle of poverty and anger, making young people much more sympathetic to the separatists.''
Preventing children from going to school is ''going down a very, very dangerous road,'' he warned. ''It's now the third year that children have difficulties accessing school in the area.'' Soon, there will be larger numbers of students with incomplete curricula who will have difficulties going to university and getting good jobs. ''Those are very worrying prospects,'' Pedneault concluded.
Jean-Marie Ngong Song contributed to this article.