Yaounde, Cameroon – Last October, Fred Assam watched from his hiding place as government soldiers spoon-fed acid to the village chief’s son.

The 24-year-old knew it was time to flee his homeland.

He escaped his village of Mbenyan in southwest Cameroon with a small bag of clothes, abandoning the life he knew behind to the safety of neighbouring Nigeria.

“The soldiers were shooting everyone they saw,” he says from Agbokim, in southern Nigeria. “They killed so many young people in Mbenyan and other villages across the Anglophone regions.”

Assam is one of over 30,000 Cameroonians – including his parents with whom he reunited three months ago – from the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions of the country who now live in refugee camps and settlements in southern Nigeria.

Discrepancies between the French and English academic, legal and administrative systems which have always existed concurrently, as well as cries of political and economic marginalisation, crystallised into a series of protests and riots in 2016.

That soon turned bloody as the government, in a bid to quell dissent, first ordered a three-month internet shutdown and deployed soldiers.

In January, separatists including Julius Tabe, the leader of the interim government of “Ambazonia” – the self-declared state consisting of the Anglophone regions – were arrested in Abuja, the Nigerian capital, on charges of terrorism.

Back in Cameroon, young untrained fighters are embroiled in a battle with government soldiers, countering sophisticated weaponry with homemade guns, machetes and charms called odeshi to make them invisible and invincible.

Trapped in the middle of all this are the estimated 17 million Anglophone Cameroonians who form roughly one-fifth of the population.

I was detained alongside suspected Boko Haram insurgents. There was this lady who was only released recently – she gave birth to her baby in prison.

Agbor Nkongho, director of Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa

Local groups say the number of people displaced from both regions has doubled to around 200,000 people over the last month and there are about 50,000 refugees in Nigeria.

The International Crisis Group, which says international reaction has been muted, estimates that at least 2,000 people have died in the conflict, with another 170,000 displaced.

An unknown number of people are also sleeping in open forests in the absence of formal camps. There is a shortage of toilets and proper hygienic conditions for menstruating girls and women in the informal host communities.

Still the country is pressing on towards an election on Sunday, as incumbent President Paul Biya seeks a seventh term in office.

Meanwhile, the government is headstrong about hosting a continental football competition next January despite the Anglophone crisis.

Observers and civil society leaders are worried about the government’s preoccupation with holding the elections and believe it is an attempt to paper over the cracks and present a united front to the international community.

“The reason I’m not contesting in this election is because of the current security situation,” says Kah Wallah, leader of the Cameroon People’s Party (CPP) which is not presenting a presidential candidate.

“You have people sleeping in the open forests. There is conflict in six of the 10 regions in Cameroon. There is intense conflict in the northwest and southwest, then in the Far North, you have about 300,000 people displaced by Boko Haram.

“In the East, there is a spillover from the insecurity in Central African Republic. In Adamawa and the North, there is spillover of the crisis in the East and Far North. There were over 71 kidnappings in Adamawa last year alone. I can’t contest an election with all this happening.”

Along with the secessionists are innocent citizens who have been arrested, detained and in the cases of some jailed for 15-year sentences or longer, on trumped-up charges of terrorism, says Agbor Nkongho, director of Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA) in Buea.

Nkongho himself was detained for eight months last year at the Kondengui prison in Yaounde and his trial was adjourned six times before a military tribunal acquitted him last August.

“I was detained alongside suspected Boko Haram insurgents,” he says. “There was this lady who was only released recently – she gave birth to her baby in prison.”

Mental health concerns

Beyond the detentions and displacements, there are concerns about the lingering trauma that could significantly hamper the healing and reintegration process for survivors.

Widows who have lost their spouses to flying bullets, children separated from their parents and citizens who have lost their incomes could have no life to return to.

For secessionist fighters, the option of an amnesty programme and “de-radicalisation” therapies are not on the table, as the government has reportedly backed a shoot-at-sight order with them as the targets.

“Election is overshadowing the crisis especially in the Francophone regions,” concurs Nkongho. “It is a non-issue in the south given the threat by the Ambazonia boys … We’ve not seen any plans to properly take care of the displaced people and the government is not admitting that there are refugees outside the country.”

Many are going through some torture, losing properties and going through serious psychological distress. They don’t know what will happen because things are so unpredictable. Parents watching their children get killed and children watching their parents murdered.

Dr Eric Gola, mental health specialist

The government’s humanitarian response has been underwhelming, say civil society leaders who point out that its relief programme factored in just 160,000 people, a number likely picked up from a UNOCHA report released earlier this year. The plan does not also address the urgent need for psychosocial support for the displaced population.

“The plan didn’t acknowledge refugees and so made no provision for those in Nigeria,” says Nkongho.

“Also, those who were to manage it are some of those seen as the enemy by the displaced and have no moral authority to implement things and distribute relief. We asked them to include civil society and the clergy who are neutral, but this wasn’t done. It has failed and it’s just a political scheme to show that President Biya cares.”

The CHRDA, which already provides legal aid and relief items to the vulnerable, is in discussions to get immediate psychological help for all those affected by the conflict. 

Local churches are also gradually stepping in to fill the void by organising small-scale trauma healing workshops, but there are few seasoned professionals to join in the process.

Abuse of substances like cannabis and tramadol is also common across both regions, warns Dr Eric Gola, a mental health specialist in Kumbo, in the northwest region.

Since the conflict began in 2016, he has been working with Berikids, one of the few rehabilitation centres nationwide.

“Many are going through some torture, losing properties and going through serious psychological distress. They don’t know what will happen because things are so unpredictable. Parents watching their children get killed and children watching their parents murdered. Soldiers raping.

The Ambazonia boys are now taking up arms and getting involved in substance abuse to get courage to fight since they are untrained. It is affecting them mentally and rehabilitation centres will face a deluge in the post-war future because most families will have serious psychiatric cases because of the trauma of war.”

Gola was contacted a few months ago by some Catholic priests who wanted to establish centres for managing psychosocial disorders and post-traumatic stress conditions pending the outcome of the conflict. It’s a drive that he wishes the government had.

“The president declared war on Southern Cameroons,” he laments. “He has the yam and the knife to stop the war, release those in detention in connection to the crisis, demilitarise both regions and organise a dialogue with all parties concerned.”

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