Systemic attacks by separatist fighters in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions against students and teachers have a “devastating impact” on children’s right to education, a new report by a global rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch said.
In the 131-page report released on Thursday, Dec. 16, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said separatist groups in the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions have killed, beaten, abducted, threatened, and terrorised students and education professionals for more than four years.
According to the report, the rights group interviewed 155 people over the phone between November 2020 and November 2021, including 29 current and former students, 47 education professionals and other witnesses to attacks.
The rights group said at least 70 schools had been attacked since 2017. The crisis began in late 2016 when Cameroonian security forces used excessive force against demonstrators protesting against the perceived marginalisation of the country’s minority Anglophone education and legal system.
In 2017, armed separatists seeking independence for the Anglophone regions declared a boycott on education, making schools a battleground for attacks and torture centres for their hostages, the rights group said.
According to the United Nations, the attacks have left more than 700,000 children fleeing their homes without an education when schools were supposed to reopen in Sept. 2021, four years after the boycott.
More than 500 students, and at least 100 education professionals, have been attacked, with at least 11 pupils and five teachers killed, and scores of others assaulted, harassed, and threatened for failing to comply with the boycott, the reports said. The report documented 268 abductions of students and education professionals.
“These criminal attacks don’t just cause immediate physical and psychological harm to victims; they jeopardise the future of tens of thousands of students,” Ilaria Allegrozzi, a senior researcher at HRW and author of the report said.
“Leaders of separatist groups should immediately announce an end to the school boycott and ensure that their fighters end all attacks on schools, teachers, and students,” Allegrozzi said.
The rights group said when it shared its findings with leaders of four major separatist groups, they did not directly address accusations their groups had attacked schools.
They said that people living in the Anglophone regions had willingly rejected the formal education system in favour of an English-centric, community-led curriculum.
While interviewing victims of these attacks, the report found the contrary. Those who risk going to school often do it covertly, the report said.
For instance, Clara, a head teacher at a government school and one of the report’s interviewees, said when she refused to abide by the separatist-ordered education boycott, separatist fighters broke into her home in March 2019, forcing her to pay 30,000 Central African francs and inflicting wounds all over her body.
She told the rights group that they cut her right hand so severely it had to be medically amputated, and she lost the use of her left hand.
Another teacher in Buea said, “Many of my students do not wear school uniforms on their way to and from school. If they wear them, they can be at risk of being spotted by the separatist fighters on the road and attacked. Also, they don’t use school bags. They put their books and notebooks in shopping bags like those we use to go to the market to buy food.”
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 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,” she said.
“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.”
Although the government has endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration – an intergovernmental political agreement to protect students, teachers, and schools during armed conflicts – in September 2018, the rights group said the response is hampered by many abusive military operations in the Anglophone regions which “sowed deep distrust among the civilian population victimised in those operations.”
The organisation called on Cameroon’s international partners, such as France, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Commission and the United Nations Children’s Fund to provide financial and technical support to Cameroonian authorities.
Attacks on school in Cameroon are no different from those in neighbouring Nigeria where terrorists in the Northeast and Northwest have been committing mass abductions on schools, forcing more children out of school in Africa’s most populous country. More than 100 schools have been attacked between Dec. 2020 and 2021.
Equally in Southeast Nigeria, separatist fighters while enforcing a stay-at-home order to protest their leader—Nnamdi Kanu’s detention, attacked schools and educational professionals who failed to comply with the order.
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