People fleeing villages in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon accuse government troops of killings, rape and harassment. Thousands are on the run after President Paul Biya declared war on secessionists.
The new Kumba-Mamfe road in the English-speaking South West Region of Cameroon, built to improve traffic and commerce, is almost deserted. It is the road that allows trade to flourish between Nigeria and Cameroon. But 32-year-old merchant Ethel Takem told DW that she and her peers had to suspend their trading when Cameroon President Paul Biya declared war on local separatist groups last weekend: "The number of check points is just unbearable," Takem said. She likened the president's soldiers to hungry lions let loose on a defenseless population. "Those who want to be killed can travel. I still have my life ahead, so I will not move," she said.
The situation is also tense in the towns of Mamfe and Eyumojock, where at least six soldiers and a policeman were killed last week. Mamfe is also the home town of Julius Ayuk Tabe, the man who calls himself the first president of Ambazonia. Ambazonia is the name separatists gave to the English-speaking regions which they hope to turn into an independent country.
The Yaounde government maintains that separatist fighters are being trained in the region and across the border in neighboring Nigeria. According to Mamfe resident Peter Ayuk, most young people have fled into the bush to escape the military. "The village of the present president is now is on fire. The military men are burning houses. All the young men are in the forests," he said.
Human rights abuses
Ayuk told DW that many people have lost trace of their relatives, including him: "I have not seen my father and my mother. I have not seen them since yesterday when they started chasing us. Everywhere there are military men. Please, people should help me. Young boys are being killed. They abduct some, now everybody is in the bush," he said.
Nyeke George Likiye, a member of the civil society in southwestern Cameroon, said he wrote to the government to complain about the troops' excesses." There are some unreasonable arrests being done. People are being tortured, people are being beaten. This is not correct," he told DW.
But General Melingui Noma, one of Cameroon's highest military officers, denied that the southwest had been militarized and rejected all accusations of human rights abuses leveled at the soldiers. He said the military was there to protect the population: "We know that if we want to overcome this crisis we have to make sure the population is with us. How can you go and embarrass and harass people whom you want to take information from? If they cannot give us the correct information, if they cannot tell us the truth about what is happening in the field, you will see that the population will then turn and follow those secessionists."
Negotiations not an option
Schools have been closed in most of the English-speaking northwest and southwest since November last year, when lawyers and teachers called for a strike to stop what they believe is the overuse of the French language. Violence erupted when separatists joined in and started calling for total independence.
On October 1, they declared what they called the independence of the Republic of Ambazonia and asked the military to surrender and join them or leave their territory. So far, they have killed at least 11 soldiers and policemen.
President Paul Biya has not softened his intransigency towards aspirations for more autonomy and has refused to negotiate. Separatist groups have said on social media that they will only enter into a dialogue with the government on the terms for secession.