Blaise Eyong was stunned by what he saw when he walked into the classroom in Kumba, a bustling town and separatist fiefdom in Cameroon’s South West cocoa belt region: six students had been shot by unidentified gunmen. Despite years spent covering the country’s fratricidal conflict, the freelance multimedia journalist remembers being shocked at the depth of inhumanity that drove the perpetrators to carry out the recent attack on October 24 at the Mother Francisca Bilingual International Academy.
Eyong, who has survived a brush with death at the hands of separatist fighters and lost a relative as a result of the army’s scorched-earth raids, is no stranger to personal loss. But not even he could have imagined he’d have to cover such a heinous scene in his hometown, which has yet to recover from the February 2019 attack on its regional hospital.
Just like the bedridden patients who met their death in Kumba District hospital, the young students of Mother Francisca could not have known that their trip to school that Saturday, to make up for ghost-town Mondays, would be their last.
According to several news reports and first-person witness accounts circulating on Cameroonian WhatsApp forums and social media, the attackers, who were wearing everyday clothes, arrived on motorcycles around midday. Moments thereafter, the shooting began, leaving six students dead (and a seventh who would succumb to their injuries the next day) and about a dozen others, mostly girls ranging from ages 12 to 14, gravely wounded.
Eyong would later describe the sight on his Twitter handle in these terms: “…on my left was the brain of a child. She was shot on the head in close range. The floor was covered with blood and the wall around the board is stained with more blood.” A day before the Mother Francisca massacre, Eyong, used the #MyAnglophoneCrisisStory, to remember the time in 2018 when, on his way back from an assignment about villagers who had taken refuge in the forests, he was held hostage by separatists who threatened to kill him.
Using the same hashtag, he recounted the story of his brother’s wife and son who died in a forest after escaping a military raid in the village of Kakeh II, and how their remains were later found under a tree. While Eyong expressed relief that the incident didn’t radicalize his brother like it had countless others, he doubted if his brother would ever get over the trauma of his loss.
Eyong’s story of personal loss is one just of a million unspoken stories stewing in the two English-speaking regions. The tragedy in Kumba births its own stories in a vast catalogue of grief that has found a home in the former West Cameroon.
There is the story of the father, a local carpenter, who told a local reporter that he saw a dozen men dressed in civilian clothes riding on four motorbikes, three on each motorbike and some carrying guns and an explosive. Moments later, he reported hearing gunshots. Deciding to walk in the direction of the shooting, he ran into a child who told him his daughter had been shot.
When he eventually found her in the medley, he noticed only the blood on her hand. He hopped on a random motorbike to rush her to the hospital. But moments after their arrival, the doctor revealed she had also been struck in her back. A team from Doctors without Borders transported her to another facility for surgery. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, he received a call to say his daughter had succumbed to her injuries.
His voice heavy, the father said he has resolved not to send her three remaining siblings to school, and shaking his head, noted that his daughter was attending school in the capital, Yaoundé, but recently insisted she wanted to return to school back home.
“I be di see people dem di lose their pikin I no di ever feel am because e nobi don touch me but when e don touch you na that time you di know say e di hot.” (“I remember feeling nothing when I watched other parents mourn their slain children but now I understand their pain.”)
He admitted that prior to the Mother Francisca shooting, he never felt affected by the killings around him. For ordinary people like him, who are caught between the excesses of the Cameroon military, armed groups, and a nascent criminal network, in a landscape where distrust of the central government is entrenched, looking away seems like the safest way to cope with the kidnappings and killings.
Alas, fear has found a welcoming home in this region, where the skeletons of razed villages and bullet-ridden buildings stand like monuments to a past that seems as distant as the world’s ears to its agony. Meanwhile, schools, teachers, and students remain under weekly attack, and though the Mother Francisca massacre seemed to inspire a moment of reflection, even among the warring factions, the cycle of score-settling murders, kidnappings, and arson continue.
Following the incident, Paul Atanga Nji, the Minister of Territorial Administration, a native of the North West, travelled with a delegation of ministers to Kumba. While addressing the media in French at a gathering, the hawkish minister struck a cavalier tone while praising his 87-year old boss, President Paul Biya.
“When the terrorists began, they thought they’d have international support, but due to the state’s forceful response, President Biya has won this war. Cameroon remains united, upright, firm, and indivisible,” he said.
For the likes of the minister and his adversaries among the belligerents in the secessionists’ ranks, it might not matter that a generation of children continue to be scarred from the protracted violence; it might not matter that communities and their histories are being wiped away, and that a child’s last memory was a gun aimed at them.
The massacres at Kumba and Ngarbuh might not matter to these men who are shielded from everyday violence by distance and power, but the many victims of the last four years are not anonymous; they are more than figures; more than mere names and faces; they are sons and daughters, siblings, cousins, mothers, fathers, neighbors, elders, and friends. The victims are people like Eyong’s brother, who despite his profound loss, still found the strength and restraint to cling on to hope.
On November 6, Cameroonians from across the country converged in Kumba for the public funeral of the slain students. Yet the question persists: what will it take for the Biya regime to address the root cause of this senseless conflict?