At around 11:30 am on October 24, unidentified gunmen stormed Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy – a school in Kumba, a city in Cameroon’s southern region and killed seven children inside their classroom in an unprovoked attack. More than ten others were wounded and taken to the hospital.
The attack has sparked tension and fear across the country and has drawn condemnation from local and international governments and religious organizations.
The diocese of Kumba in sympathy and solidarity, condemned the killings and described the attack on the school as a “terrible and satanic manifestation of disrespect and desecration of human life which is a gift of God.”
At the local cathedral, the bishop of the diocese, Agapitus Nfon joined by parishioners, held a solemn Mass for the repose of the victims and God’s consolation on their families. He also called for an end to the ongoing crisis in the region.
“Today is the saddest day for Kumba since the socio-political crisis affecting the North West and South West regions started in 2016, and which has now escalated into war,” Bishop Nfon said in a statement. “Because of this barbarous act, the people of Kumba are wailing, the entire diocese of Kumba is mourning, our hearts have been crushed because our innocent children are no more.”
The statement said the diocese stands with the families of the deceased students and staff of the school who have been traumatized by the attacks.
In the capital, Yaounde, the bishop of the diocese, Jean Mbarga led an inter-religious service organized at the Yaounde Multi Sports Complex in honour of the seven murdered children. A mix of religious leaders from Muslim and Christian communities prayed for the repose of the souls of the children and peace in the troubled region.
“This horrible assassination plunges our country and the entire world in immense pain and sadness,” bishop Mbarga said. “It’s criminal, it’s cruel and this carries no message except that of the absurd and murderous madness, of the barbarism and the indignation it arouses. The death of these children is worthy; it is in fidelity and in honor. They were massacred while fulfilling their state duty. They were killed with their pencils, their books, their school bags in their hands. They were persecuted in the field of their civic and human responsibilities. They are martyrs; they are innocent saints in the eyes of God as in the eyes of men,” he said.
“Our community has never remained the same since the attacks happened,” said Stephen Ngor, a resident of the community where the attack happened. “People are scared because they don’t know when or where the next attacks would happen.”
After the attacks, hundreds of residents of the community, including students of the school where the killings occurred, took to the street to protest and called on the government to protect them.
The government in a statement condemned the killings and blamed it on armed separatist groups. President Paul Biya also dispatched a delegation to Kumba to sympathize with affected bereaved families and guardians.
“The Government believes that no cause in the world can justify or legitimize such systematic attacks on the lives of human beings, not to talk of the lives of innocent children, pupils, or students, who should attend school, college, high school, university, be educated and be able to look after themselves, and be able to conveniently take over from their elders tomorrow,” the statement said.
Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis, which started in 2016, was triggered by demonstrations by lawyers and teachers over the rising influence of French in their education and legal systems.
Additionally, with frustration over alleged political and economic marginalization, the protesters’ action soon morphed into wider demands and resulted in several strikes. Although talk of marginalization is not new, the action by barristers and teachers became a rallying point for Anglophone Cameroonians who had voted to join the French Cameroon majority to form the United Republic of Cameroon in 1961.
Military response from the government failed to reduce tensions, as security forces were accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests and torture.
In response to the reported crimes committed by government-backed security forces, separatist groups from the English-speaking region of the country rose to fight back and demand independence.
An estimated 3,000 people have been killed with more than 700, 000 displaced, especially to neighbouring Nigeria, according to the United Nations.
UNICEF estimates that more than 855,000 children remain out of school in the Anglophone regions where more than 80 percent of schools remain closed.
“It is sad that children who are seeking better education to help their parents and develop their country and communities would be killed in such a brutal manner,” Ngor added.
“Let us pray for His divine intervention in the search for a lasting solution to the crisis so that justice and peace may reign, for he is a God of Justice and Peace,” the statement from Kumba diocese where the attack happened said.
During his weekly general audience, Pope Francis expressed his closeness to the families of the young students killed and prayed for peace in the country.
“I feel great bewilderment at such a cruel and senseless act, which tore the young innocents from life while they were attending lessons at school,” he said. “May God enlighten hearts, so that similar gestures may never be repeated again and so that the tormented regions of the north-west and south-west of the country may finally find peace. I hope that the weapons will remain silent and that the safety of all and the right of every young person to education and the future can be guaranteed. I express my affection to families, to the city of Kumba and to the whole of Cameroon and I invoke the comfort that only God can give.”
In a statement, members of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar [JCAM] condemned the attacks and called on authorities to end the conflict which is gradually entering its fifth year.
“We are shocked and outraged by the killing of innocent school children,” the statement signed by Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, the president of the Society, read. “We extend our deepest condolences to the families of the children and offer our prayers and moral support to the wounded and their families and to the entire community of Kumba. We stand with them in this time of sorrow and grief and we are grateful to all those providing medical care to the wounded and all other forms of immediate support to the families of the children.
The statement continued, “This heinous and despicable act shows no regard for innocent lives which represent the hope for Cameroon and Africa. We demand that this violence stops now and that children should be allowed to live in safety without any fear of violence. We further demand that the perpetrators of the attack be brought to justice.”
Some 60,000 people have fled their homes in Cameroon to Nigerian states as a way of escaping the conflict which has destroyed their lives and livelihoods.
Caritas Nigeria has been responding to the refugee and humanitarian crisis and calling for support. They donate and distribute food, medicine, blankets and other supplies to the refugees.
“The situation has grown from an emergency to a more stable state now though this does not in any way make them less vulnerable,” said Fr. Evaristus Bassey, the former director of Caritas Nigeria. “The assistance provided should be such that can reasonably sustain a household. However, the principle of inclusion has helped on a large scale to integrate the refugees and the host community and has enabled them to find other means of livelihood.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] — the UN’s refugee agency — provides a cash-based intervention of N7,200 [$20] per month to the refugees to cover food and other basic needs.
“The Cash-Based Assistance provided has dropped to a very minimal amount and as a result, refugees are leaving the settlements to host communities in search of means of survival,” Fr. Bassey said.
Last year, the UNHCR launched a $27.3 million appeal for the conflict in Cameroon, especially the refugee crisis. As of October 2, 2019, funding of the budget for the Cameroon refugee situation stood at 55 percent.
There are also growing cases of gender-based violence at the refugee camps as the young girls and women engage in transactional sex to survive.
“The conflict has not worsened as such and has not been any better either, because the Ambasonians still agitate and the government of the day is not ready to give room for peace,” Fr. Bassey adds. (Ambasonians are members of the self-declared state of Ambazonia, internationally considered an autonomous Anglophone state of the UN-created Cameroon federation of 1961.) “Some of the devastation suffered by the refugees has come from the Ambasonians themselves perhaps as a strategy to instigate the people to join their cause.”
The road to peace in the country seems far away as a recent move for peace talks between the government and the separatist has met a dead end.
“For a sustainable solution, the United Nations should call for peace talks and ensure that the state provides protection to its people,” said Fr. Bassey who is also an experienced development expert. “Many people feel that because this is Africa, there isn’t much interest. France also gives the impression by this conflict that She is only concerned with the Francophone part of the country, not minding whatever happens in the Anglophone part. The policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of states does not apply in this case, as there have been massive humanitarian displacements. Well-meaning groups should mount pressure on France to intervene more decisively.”
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