They call it a “dirty war” — a silent conflict in Cameroon’s anglophone region marked by near-daily attacks by separatists and a brutal army backlash that shows no sign of abating.
Over the past eight months, scores of police, soldiers and civilians have died in the heartland of francophone Cameroon’s English-speaking minority.
Homes have been torched, shops looted, complaints of summary arrest and detention are common and, according to UN estimates, tens of thousands have fled their homes.
“In less than two weeks, there were attacks on the motorcades of the chief of staff, the governor and me as well,” General Donatien Nouma Melingui, in charge of military operations in the Southwest Region, which with the neighbouring Northwest Region is home to most of Cameroon’s anglophones, said.
“The attacks come from everywhere. There are many small groups,” he said in Buea, the Southwest Region’s main city.
The insurgency began in 2016, when activists in the anglophone minority, comprising about a fifth of the country’s population of 22 million, stepped up a campaign for greater autonomy.
President Paul Biya rejected their demands, prompting radicals to make a full-blown but symbolic declaration of independence last October 1.
Since then, separatists have killed well over 30 members of the security forces, according to an AFP toll based on official figures.
But the complete toll from the violence is unclear, and commentators say it is likely to be much higher.
Local people, meanwhile, openly describe it as a “dirty war”.
Buea is the last outpost for journalists and non-governmental organisations as far as the government is concerned.
Authorities say they cannot guarantee the safety of people who venture beyond the verdant rolling hills outside the city.
“Armed men emerge from the forest to check vehicles. If you are a French-speaking Cameroonian or French or a soldier, you’re dead,” Matthias Ekeke, a rapporteur of the National Commission of Human Rights, said.
According to UN estimates, tens of thousands of people are internally displaced in Cameroon, a one-time German colony that was divided between France and Britain after World War I.
In 1961, the English-speaking Southern Cameroons joined newly-independent francophone Cameroon, despite complaints that this was a forced marriage.
Today, anglophones complain of marginalisation in education, the judiciary and the economy and having French imposed on them.
“The government is ignoring the aspirations of the anglophones and the situation is on the verge of the point of no return,” Monsignor Emmanuel Bushu, the bishop of Buea, said.
“The army has killed a lot of people since October 1,” he said. “They fired on people like sitting ducks.”
A local priest laid blame on the government for exacerbating the crisis.
“It’s the army which has radicalised these youths it is now fighting. If Yaoundé had not started killing people, it could have settled the crisis,” he said.
General Melingui expressed little but scorn for the separatists, characterising them as “drugged youths armed with talismans” they believe give them magical powers.
But, he admitted “they know the terrain. These are youths from local villages. We try to seek them out but we can’t find them. Our men aren’t familiar with the forest.”
The army patrols some of the arterial roads and highways in the thickly forested area and are often attacked.
The separatists communicate over WhatsApp and use it to launch propaganda while the government issues statements to give its version of events.
“Both sides lie and they say whatever they want,” a rights activist said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Since nobody knows the number of civilian deaths or the number of displaced, the media does not speak about it,” a student in Buea, who identified himself as John, said.
“Both the army and the separatists commit excesses,” Blaise Chamango, the head of a non-governmental organisation called Human Is Right, said.
“But the soldiers are worse than the opposite camp and refuse to talk about it,” he said.
Locals and NGOs accuse soldiers of torching numerous villages in revenge attacks.
“We only burn houses where weapons were found,” Melingui said.
But more and more videos are circulating on social media showing Cameroonian soldiers burning houses, lending credence to accounts by fleeing villagers.
“Schools have been empty for the past year and security forces are openly racketeering,” Ekeke from the national rights commission said.
Gendarmes sometimes ask families of people detained to pay 30,000 CFA francs (45 euros, $50, Sh500) to secure their release, he added.
“It’s total chaos,” he said. “If the youths join the separatists it’s because they feel abandoned by the Cameroonian state.”