Schoolchildren have become pawns in the fierce conflict between pro-independence fighters and the government.
The separatists lock out the towns and villages of North West and South West to ensure the closure of schools for a fourth consecutive academic year.
The regions are heavily militarized, with troops fighting insurgents using ‘hit-and-run’ tactics.
Schools were due to open on September 2nd. Instead, parents and children flee their homes by the thousands because they fear an escalation of the conflict.
Most schools in both regions – including the villages – have been empty for three years and their buildings are covered with long grass.
In some areas, the government has deployed troops to guard classrooms, but with the army being the main enemy of separatists, the risk of attacks by separatist gunmen has increased.
UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said the ban on education affected about 600,000 children. More than 80% of schools have been closed and at least 74 schools have been destroyed in troubled areas.
In one incident, 80 students, their principal and one teacher – who challenged the lockdown – were kidnapped last year before being released about a week later.
The separatist fighters denied any involvement, but the government blamed them for the kidnappings.
The conflict stems from the government’s decision to increase the use of French in schools and courts in predominantly English-speaking areas in 2016.
This triggered mass protests and turned into a rebellion the following year. while some civilians – angry at the government deploying troops to quell demonstrations – took up arms.
Thousands of people – civilians, separatists and soldiers – have been killed and more than 500,000 people have been displaced.
The economy is also in ruins, companies go bankrupt and workers are not paid.
Even worse, the children are orphans and some of them went into the bush to join one of the many armed groups that emerged to fight for what they call the independent state of Ambazonia.
What was once unthinkable has become a reality: Cameroon – like some other African states – now has child soldiers.
They accuse the government troops of the death of their parents and have sworn revenge.
The separatists have targeted schools more than anything else because they are the weakest targets and because they want to thwart the government’s efforts to ensure that children – the next generation of English-speaking Cameroonians – are subject to French influence. bigger.
They insist that schools remain closed until the government agrees to negotiate to create the state of Ambizonia – which it has so far refused to do, thinking it can defeat those he calls “terrorists” .
In the absence of a major international effort to end the conflict, the two sides became more belligerent.
Last month, a military court sentenced Ambazonia’s self-proclaimed leader, Sisiku Ayuk Tabe, and nine of his colleagues to life imprisonment following their arrest and deportation from neighboring Nigeria.
‘The head in the sand’
The ruling party, the rabid separatists, have intensified their efforts to impose a ‘lockout’ by ensuring that residents of the two regions – which have about eight million inhabitants – stay at home. them.
All public transport was stopped and stores, offices and markets were closed.
In the past, the separatists had ordered locks for one day, usually Monday.Anyone who defies the order is called “sold” and may be attacked and even killed. This time, the lockdown will be two and possibly three weeks.
Bamenda, the largest English-speaking city in the country with a population of about 400,000, has been locked out since last week, while in other areas the lockdown began this week.