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April 1, 2021

Cameroon’s bloody conflict: Victims’ agony as COVID-19 disrupts government humanitarian assistance plan

By Cameroonian journalist Ayang Macdonald, first published on Journal du and The Guardian Post.

Sixty-five-year-old Daniel Akwo was among more than 2,000 people who lined up at a ceremonial ground in Mamfe, in the South West region of Cameroon, on January 6, 2021, in desperate wait to receive just a handful of humanitarian assistance items from the government of the central African nation.

Cameroon’s government has since 2018 been running an emergency humanitarian assistance plan, which has had support from various bilateral partners such as China. But the outbreak of the coronavirus last March dealt a severe blow to it, leaving thousands of victims of a bloody conflict in the country’s English speaking regions in acute desperation.

The massive Mamfe crowd was not in any way reflective of the quality of the items being distributed, but rather of the frustration of the thousands of victims of a bloody armed conflict which has claimed more than 4,000 lives and displaced millions. According to figures from the United Nations, about three million people in the English-speaking regions have been affected by the humanitarian crisis.

After the long wait under the scorching sun of Mamfe – a town about 450 kilometres from the political capital, Yaounde –  all Daniel Akwo is able to take home are a thin mattress, a blanket, a small bucket of rice, three litres of vegetable oil, and about ten tablets of washing soap.

Akwo is visibly excited to take home the pack, but the food items are far less sufficient to serve, for up to two weeks, the over ten IDPs the subsistence farmer is hosting in his small house in Mamfe.

He is, however, excited because it is the first time in nearly a year that government or any other charity organisation was reaching out to IDPs in the small town with humanitarian supplies.

Akwo is just one of several other persons who recounted to me the ordeal they have gone through since the outbreak of the global pandemic in Cameroon, with deaths registered in some instances as a result of the disruption brought about by the virus.

Deep in crisis

The town of Mamfe, where Mr Akwo resides, is the headquarters of Manyu division, one of the 58 territorial administrative units of Cameroon. It is one of the towns worst hit by the ongoing separatist insurgency in Cameroon since 2017.

The area has been a theatre of fierce fighting on several occasions between government forces and armed separatist fighters who are pushing for the creation of a state they refer to as ‘Ambazonia’.

On May 10, 2020, the mayor of the town, 30-year-old Ashu Priestley Ojong, was shot dead by men believed to be armed separatist fighters while on the way to his village, Eshobi, just eight (8) kilometres outside Mamfe town.

While thousands of people in the administrative unit have long fled to neighbouring Nigeria, Mamfe is, nonetheless, host to several IDPs, returnee refugees as well as other victims of the crisis fleeing nearby towns such as Akwaya, Eyumojock, Ekok, Tinto, as well as smaller villages around the division.

Like Daniel Akwo, many other crisis victims who showed up in Mamfe on January 6 to receive the few items, have gone for several months without such aid, and they confess that life has literally been unbearable for them.

It is the same situation with many IDPs and other Good Samaritan Cameroonians who have taken up the challenge of hosting desperate victims of the crisis in other regions of the country including the Littoral, Centre, West, North West and South West regions.

For struggling individuals like Mr Akwo, who are playing the benevolent role of hosting desperate IDPs, most of whom have lost property in their original settlements, the situation is simply appalling.

“This is the day we have been waiting for. It has been an extraordinarily harsh experience for some of us as we have not been able to see anyone come around with aid items for us. We understand it was due to the coronavirus pandemic, which also came to add to our existing suffering,” Mr Akwo says, throwing words of desperate thanks to President Paul Biya at whose behest the items were being shared.

A young IDP woman in Mamfe secures a mattress and a few other food items on January 6 2021, for the first time in nearly one year (Photo: Terrorial Administration Ministry).

Daniel Akwo tells me he is hosting eight IDP women, some of them with young children. The IDPs come from villages in Akwaya sub-division, fleeing years of insecurity inflicted on them by both government troops and armed militia men. A majority of the over 60,000 refugees in Nigeria are from villages in Akwaya because the area is quite close to Nigeria and some villagers there share similarities with inhabitants of some Nigerian communities.

Akwo says throughout the period when there was no one coming around with humanitarian aid, he was usually very pensive, often lost in thought about how to feed the IDPs he has been hosting in his tight home for about three years now.

Being a subsistence farmer, Mr Akwo hardly has enough food for his IDP guests, but because they must eat, he has to make ends meet. He said apart from his individual efforts to take care of them, he has over the years also relied on some of the assistance brought around by government as well as private humanitarian outfits.

Stranded with over 30 IDPs

In Kumba, South West region, (more than 360 kilometres from Yaounde), many other IDP hosts are going through the same hell as Mr Akwo. One of them I met is 70-year-old Wilson Ngalame, an old man who has been keeping tens of IDPs in his tight wooden house in a slum neighbourhood of the town.

“I am hosting close to 30 IDPs here in Kumba because I could not help watching them when they approached me for help. Most of them are women with young children, with some of them suffering from terrible skin diseases because they have spent several months in the bush. There was no way to send them away, so I decided to take them in so that we can manage with the little I have,” Ngalame recounts.

Despite his generosity, the old man confesses it has not been easy at all managing the over two dozen IDPs which he hosts, no less so when the pandemic broke out in the country.

“It has not been easy for us. Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, we hardly had humanitarian assistance from either government or other charity organisations. However, the pandemic came to make matters worse for us. We even made suggestions to local authorities on how humanitarian assistance should be provided especially for aged persons like these (pointing to some women) who cannot stand on queues to receive items. But our suggestions have fallen on deaf ears as no one seems to bother about us,” he narrates.

He adds: “I hear many groups come here to share items but I don’t know whether they do so only to people they know, as some of us do not have the opportunity to benefit. People who are in dire need of this aid seem to have been abandoned to their lot. We have not had anything from anybody for a long time now”.

"Do something urgently"

“We are pleading with the government and the powers that be to do something, and urgently too. In order to make their donations reach everybody, a system should be introduced where humanitarian agents can move from compound to compound to meet the real persons who are in need. Look at the women around me; they are very desperate and have no hope. Like I said, it’s even worse for these past months with the existence of COVID-19. We have had nothing, absolutely nothing. I am not making this plea for myself but for the sake of the people I am hosting here,” Mr Ngalame pleads to authorities in Yaounde.

He cries out that many people have come around to deceive them that they’ll receive humanitarian supplies, but that, he adds, has neverbeen the case, and some of them “…can’t even describe the type of suffering we go through because of the number of IDPs we keep”.

In Buea, capital of the South West region, a town just about 70 kilometres away from Kumba, the situation is the same. Peter Babila has been keeping at least six victims of the crisis in his home, and has found it hard coping with them since the pandemic broke out in Cameroon on March 6.

“The challenges I have been going through with them are financial and material. It’s been an uphill task feeding and clothing them. Apart from my personal efforts, we do receive assistance from some humanitarian organisations that come around. We have also had donations from non-governmental organisations and philanthropic individuals – mostly for the children I keep; but the outbreak of the COVID-19 came and slowed things down. It’s not really been easy for us since then,” he tells me.

China’s support for the Cameroon government's plan

China has long standing relations with Cameroon, which cut across several domains including trade, defence and security, health, and education.

Apart from China’s support to Cameroon in the fight against COVID-19, the Asian giant has been of significant help to Cameroon as far as the execution of a humanitarian assistance plan for the Cameroon crisis victims is concerned.

Like some other countries that entertain cordial bilateral relations with Cameroon, The People’s Republic of China has been very helpful in the implementation of Cameroon’s emergency humanitarian assistance plan which was drawn up to the tune of XAF 12 billion (about $20 million) and launched in June 2018. The plan is coordinated by Cameroon’s Minister of Territorial Administration (Minister of Interior).

Over the years, China has not only assisted Cameroon in building and equipping its health system, it has played a pivotal role in the donation of both financial and material resources for the humanitarian cause in the country’s Anglophone regions. Some of the donations have included food items, bedding, drugs, other personal effects and even vehicles to enable government officials to access areas where the humanitarian assistance is needed.

One such major donations by China, as confirmed by Embassy officials in Yaounde, came in August 2019 when the Chinese government donated assorted items worth XAF 1.6 billion (roughly US$2.6 million). The items comprised brand new vehicles, ambulances, treated mosquito nets, school benches, and beds, to name but these. The donation, just like the others, was in fulfilment of a promise made by China’s President Xi Jinping to Cameroon’s Head of State, Paul Biya, in September 2018 during the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in Beijing. The promise was made just three months after the humanitarian plan was launched.

Chinese Embassy officials in Yaounde affirm the country has made significant donations to Cameroon within the framework of the emergency humanitarian assistance plan, and say they remain open to more support whenever the opportunity shall present itself.

COVID-19 ‘curse’

The outbreak of COVID-19 in Cameroon just came to add to the litany of difficulties that had been plaguing humanitarian efforts in the country. Even before the pandemic, access to remote areas in the North West and South West Regions had been literally blocked as humanitarian agencies found it difficult taking aid to those areas due to the severity of the violence.

This notwithstanding, the appearance of the pandemic in the country on March 6, 2020 made matters worse. About a week after the outbreak, the government announced a number of preventive austerity measures and many of them remained in place for several weeks thereafter, and even today.

The measures generally affected movement, putting a halt to many activities including routine humanitarian actions carried out by government and independent humanitarian organisations.

For organisations that have been working for the welfare of victims of the crisis in the South West region, their activities were clearly affected by the pandemic, thereby penalising hundreds of beneficiaries of some of their humanitarian activities.

Mama Alice Netonda and Florence Motale seen outside the old wooden house sheltering them and about 28 other IDPs in a slum neighbourhood of Kumba (Photo: Ayang Macdonald).

Some of them say they used to implement projects in affected areas, but that has not been the case lately,largely in part because of the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country.

It should be noted that apart from just having access to food supplies, victims of the crisis in the two ravaged regions also benefit from interventions in other forms including healthcare, which is made available to them not just by government services but, to a larger extent, by international organisations such as Doctors Without Borders. This French non-profit organisation has been working to assist in the delivery of healthcare to the crisis victims.

Tough experience for humanitarian field staff

With the outbreak of the coronavirus in the country, the organisation admits its activities were tremendously affected, and that had ripple effects on the thousands of lives of crisis victims which they touch every day through their medical interventions.

Gisa Kohler, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders (DWB), a charity organisation that has been providing humanitarian assistance to all sorts of victims of the ongoing crisis, says they encountered a number of problems grappling with their field intervention programme because of the pandemic.

“During this period (of the pandemic), we didn’t have stocks of humanitarian protection material to send to the field for our staff who were working on the frontlines. That was a big issue and a big concern. Another issue was that the supply chain of our materials into the country was heavily impacted. It was difficult for us to have planes that could come in, and the few ones we found were extremely expensive. The third big problem had to do with our human resources. It was really difficult getting people on the field given that there were a lot of travel restrictions including border closures which made it difficult for some of our international staff to come in,” Kouler said in an interview at the DWB head office in Buea, South West Cameroon.

"We don’t know when our sufferings will end"

The prolonged halt in humanitarian outreach to IDPs and other needy victims scattered around IDP settlements in almost all of the country’s ten administrative regions has greatly penalized thousands of the IDPs who largely depend on rations from government and other local and international humanitarian outfits, for subsistence.

This has added to the ordeal of the victims as some of them continue to wonder when their woes will end.

“We have always been running for our dear lives because of incessant gunshots and the high level of insecurity. At some point, I escaped to the forest with my young children and we stayed there for two months. We were rescued from the bush by my son-in-law; that’s why we are now here as IDPs. I have been living here with this man who has been giving us the little he can but things are really very difficult on our side. Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, we have not had any assistance from anywhere whatsoever. We have been fooled here several times, but I can tell you that we have not had donations since. Sometime ago, some people came and took down our names telling us they will bring items for us. But since then, nothing has happened; we are in really bad shape as I speak to you,” says Mama Alice Netonda, one of the several IDPs hosted by Mr Ngalame in Kumba.

"We are tired and frustrated"

November 21, 2020, marked exactly four years since the staging of a peaceful strike by teachers in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions, which appeared to have been the last straw that broke the camel’s back. A brutal police crackdown on the protesters is what is considered to have exacerbated tempers and pushed the crisis to the level it is today. The armed phase of the crisis broke out in late November 2017 when suspected armed separatists murdered a gendarme at Jakiri in the North West region, and later the killing of other gendarmes in Mamfe, in the South West region.

After years of killings and unbearable humanitarian sufferings, victims say they can only wish for the day the war will be brought to an end.

“We are tired and frustrated. The killings and loss of life are unbearable and we are calling on the powers that be to do something in order to stop these killings. If anything, I am calling on the government to ensure that this problem should be brought to an end. Let all the shooting stop so that we can go back to our villages and to our farms. I am also praying to God to speak to all the parties to this crisis so that they can come to a consensus and chart a way out of it. We are specifically calling on the head of state, who we have been supporting all these years, to please do something. Why has he turned his back on us? We really want him to do something so that we too can be fine again,” Mama Netonda cries out.

Seated close to Mama Netonda is another old woman, 65-year-old Florence Motale, who escaped from Matoh, a small village outside Kumba, now largely deserted because of the crisis. She has seen it all with the conflict and wished she could stop it if she had the means.

“When this crisis started, we had to relocate from our village because of insecurity. I lived in my son-in-law’s farm for many weeks, with my young grandson. We stayed in the bush until I was afraid that mosquitoes will kill my children and I. That’s how, by the grace of God, we found our way into Kumba as IDPs. All of us are overwhelmed because the number of people we have lost here is frightening. If we had the power to stop this, we would have done so, but since we can’t, we are pleading with the head of state who has the power to do so, to stop this bloodbath. About 20 people die in this area every day,” she laments.

"Everything suddenly stopped"

Another victim of the crisis I met is a 60-year-old amputee who fled his village in the North West region and settled in a small community in the West region. This is a region that hosts thousands of IDPs and other victims of the ongoing crisis, in part, because of its proximity to the North West.

The amputee IDP, who asked to remain anonymous for personal reasons, explained that he had his house burnt down in 2018 by men in military attire. He says it has not been easy with him fending for himself and his family given his physical handicap. He has five children and a wife. Like many others, he and his family have often depended on charity donations, which, he says, have not come their way for quite a very long time.

“Life has been very difficult for me since I don’t work anywhere. I have always wanted to find people who can help me work on my farm because of my disability, but it’s not even possible to find boys around because everybody has run away because of the crisis. It’s true some charity organisations used to give us food items but when the coronavirus broke out early last year, everything suddenly stopped. We are suffering so much here. Our prayer is to see the situation come to an end as quickly as possible so that we can return to our normal lives,” he narrates.

Lives lost

Apart from the acute suffering which victims have undergone, there are instances where some of them met death because they were unable to have access to regular humanitarian intervention, healthcare assistance specifically.

Atigi Samuel, head of the Mandela Voluntary Foundation, a local charityoperating in the North West region, says they lost a number of epilepsy patients who depended on them for routine drugs supply.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 really added to the already existing sufferings in the North West due to the ongoing socio-political crisis. It has greatly hampered our humanitarian outreach activities, thereby exacerbating the excruciating pains which beneficiaries have been going through,” Atigi explains.

“Our association used to offer medications and other assistance to some epileptic patients in Momo division and its environs. Because of the virus, we have not been able to go there again, and we gathered that many of them have died as a result,” the Mandela Voluntary Foundation CEO says.

“We also had donations of fairly used clothes and food items which we wanted to take to the Adagom refugee camp, as well as other Cameroonian refugee settlements in Nigeria. We have made similar trips and donations in the past; but unfortunately, the pandemic came and disrupted all our plans. We hope it can get better anytime soon,” he regrets.

All of these notwithstanding, life is gradually returning to normal in Cameroon as austerity virus restrictions are progressively being eased. The government – through the Ministry of Territorial Administration – has undertaken to make some of its routine humanitarian donations again. But this is happening only in urban areas such as Bamenda in the North West, and in some communities in the Centre region of the country, where thousands of the crisis victims are seeking sanctuary.

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