Punished for having books: schools in Cameroon terrorised by armed groups

Armed separatists in Cameroon’s anglophone regions have attacked, kidnapped and threatened hundreds of school pupils in nearly five years of violence that has forced more than 230,000 children to flee their homes, a report has found.

Ilaria Allegrozzi, author of the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, said it was essential that separatist leaders called off a school boycott, which was initially intended as a protest over injustices against English-speakers but which is now “destroying an entire generation of Cameroonians” by depriving them of an education.

In a detailed analysis of the conflict that has gripped the English-speaking regions since 2017, dozens of students and teachers speak of brutal attacks by armed groups who have made education a battleground in their fight to form their own state.

Separatist fighters began to order and enforce school boycotts, including by attacking scores of schools across the Anglophone regions.

Ms Allegrozzi said that the Separatist need to "reining in their fighters.", adding that “They should instruct their fighters to stop attacking schools. Schools are not places that can be battlegrounds.”

The crisis in the anglophone regions began in late 2016, when Cameroonian security forces used excessive force against demonstrations led by teachers and lawyers angry about the perceived marginalisation of the anglophone education and legal systems.

Those protests were peaceful, but since 2017, when armed separatist groups seeking independence for the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest Regions declared an education boycott, at least 70 schools have been attacked, the report said.

More than 500 students, and at least 100 education professionals, have been attacked, it claimed, with at least 11 pupils and five teachers killed, and scores of others assaulted, harassed, and threatened for failing to comply with the boycott. Separatist fighters have also kidnapped 255 students, according to HRW.

Sara was a 17-year-old high school student when separatist fighters occupied her school, causing her to flee her hometown in Cameroon’s North-West region out of fear. She decided to move to the capital, Yaoundé, to finish her education.

On the way, armed separatists stopped and searched her, then tore her school books and notebooks. They also threatened her, telling her that they would be consequences if she was ever caught with school books again.

In Yaoundé, she could not afford the school fees, and resulted in her looking for a job, which she found at a pineapple company. After working for two years, she abandoned her dream of finishing school.

One woman, a 19-year-old secondary school pupil, from Buea, Southwest Region, recalled being abducted and brutally maimed by armed separatists in January 2020, on her way back from school.

“They were armed with machetes and knives,” she said. “They blindfolded me so I could not see where they were taking me. We had to walk for a few hours. I was not given food. I slept on the ground outside for three days. The amba [separatist fighters] called my father and asked him to pay money for my release.

“On the third day, when I was about to be released, they cut my finger with a machete. One of the boys did it. They punished me because they found schoolbooks in my bag. They wanted to cut a finger off my right hand to prevent me from writing again. I begged them [not to], and then they chopped the forefinger of my left hand.”

In September, when schools were supposed to reopen for the new academic year, two out of three in Cameroon’s anglophone regions remained closed, leaving more than 700,000 students without education, according to the UN.

Those who do risk going to school often do it covertly, the report said.

Allegrozzi said that although the report focused on attacks on education by armed separatist groups, human rights abuses have been committed by both sides.

“[Cameroonian] security forces also bear responsibility for serious attacks against civilians,” she said. “They have killed innocent people during abusive counterinsurgency operations. They have burnt hundreds of villages and homes across the two regions. So people have been really caught in the middle between a rock and a hard place.”

Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, called on the international community to break its “deadly silence” on the country’s “education mega-emergency” after a visit to Cameroon earlier this month.

“Cameroon is one of the world’s most forgotten crises,” he said. “Until the international community steps up its support and diplomatic engagement, children will continue to bear the brunt of the violence.”

The Cameroonian government said it has deployed security forces to some schools to reassure teachers and pupils about safety. It has also mounted a “back to school” campaign over the past two years in an attempt to break the boycott.

But in its report HRW criticised authorities’ failure to bring the perpetrators of the attacks to justice. It said the armed groups “have enjoyed almost absolute impunity for their attacks on education”.

The organisation based its research on 155 telephone calls with people in Cameroon.

The separatist leaders, who belong to multiple groups, all disputed the findings of the report. One said it was “extremely biased to the degree that it is difficult to characterise it as anything other than as [sic] deliberate misinformation”.