Atiku Bakari, 12, living in Cameroon’s embattled Northwest Region, had gone to fetch firewood that fateful July 16, when his eyes fell on a rare “toy”: a hand grenade.
As Atiku innocently grasped the lethal object to start throwing around, it detonated—shattering his right hand, hitting him on the chest and wounding his stomach, and leg. His older brother, Aliyu Bakari, who was with him, also sustained serious wounds on his leg, stomach, and hand.
On getting the information, their mother, Zenabu Bakari, 33, fell fainting on the ground. Neighbors rushed the two children to the Fundong district hospital, where Atiku’s right hand was immediately amputated. The two victims were then referred to a bigger health facility, the Mbingo Baptist Hospital.
“After spending 2 weeks in the hospital, Aliyu’s bill amounted to FCFA 87,200 [US $156.43]; I couldn’t afford to pay; A Catholic Priest helped me pay it,” Zenabu, mother of the two children told The Epoch Times in Cameroon Pidgin English on phone.
“We have been discharged from the hospital, but still kept there because I don’t have the FCFA 400,000 [US $717.58] hospital bill needed. I’m still owing 52,300 [USD $93.82] in the district Hospital. I wouldn’t have incurred all these costs if Doctors Without Borders were still operating here. They would have helped me treat my children for free,” the struggling mother who lives on selling roasted fish told The Epoch Times.
That is because the international humanitarian medical non-governmental organization—Doctors Without Borders(MSF)—decided to withdraw its teams from the North West Region of Cameroon on Aug. 3, after eight months of suspension by the Cameroonian authorities fighting Anglophone Separatist rebels in the region. The emergency humanitarian NGO has been accused of colluding with local armed groups.
“There have been a mix of formal accusations that are largely administrative in nature, and a series of deeply troubling informal accusations and allegations that have circulated mostly in pro Cameroonian government media,” Laura Martinelli, who was serving as MSF’s Program Coordinator for North-West Cameroon prior to the suspension, told The Epoch Times in an email.
“These informal allegations range from being actively supportive of armed groups, transporting weapons and suchlike. Doctors Without Borders has consistently and categorically rejected the allegations of having provided support for separatist fighters in the North-West.”
Justifying the withdrawal, Emmanuel Lampaert, MSF’s operations coordinator for Central Africa said: “We cannot stay any longer in a region where we are not allowed to provide care to people here.”
“This suspension significantly reduces access to medical services in an area where communities are badly affected by armed violence,” he said.
Doctors Without Borders has now closed its services in Cameroon’s Northwestern Region but continues operating in the sister conflict-hit Southwest Region amid challenges.
Reached on phone, the Governor of Cameroon’s North West Region who suspended the medical charity, Adolphe Lele L’Afrique, refused to comment to The Epoch Times regarding the December 2020 suspension order.
Since 2018, Doctors Without Borders had been working in partnership with a good number of health facilities in the crisis-hit Regions of Cameroon to provide free-of-charge medical care to children and pregnant women, as well as responding to victims of trauma.
For close to five years now, there has been a conflict in Cameroon’s two English-speaking North West and South West Regions, stemming from the country’s colonial past.
Cameroon was first colonized by Germany (1884-1916), and later split between France and Britain. French Cameroon gained independence in 1960, joined by English-speaking Cameroonians through a federation a year later, after a vote in a UN-organized plebiscite. The French-speaking section constitutes about 80 percent while the English-speaking section constitutes about 20 percent, both in terms of territory and population.
A controversial referendum in 1972 abrogated the country’s federal structure.
“The federal structure which guaranteed the rights of the minority Anglophone section was hastily dissolved in 1972 thus laying the groundwork for claims of political and economic marginalization by the Anglophones,” Dr. Emile Sunjo, Senior Lecturer of International Relations and Conflict Resolution in Cameroon’s University of Buea told The Epoch Times in a text.
These claims were either ignored or brutally crushed in the successive decades, Sunjo said.
Tensions between the Francophone-led government and English-speaking secessionist movements reached a new pitch in 2016, after the government imposed French-speaking teachers and lawyers on Anglophone schools and courts.
“The protests were met with a disproportionate use of force by government security forces and the arrest and detention of the leaders. Events then spiraled out of control and a separatist movement emerged, calling for the independence of the Anglophone Cameroon,” Sunjo told The Epoch Times.
“The war has left more than 4,000 dead, hundreds of thousands displaced internally and about 50,000 as refugees in neighboring Nigeria. Hundreds of thousands of children have been deprived of school and the local economy is in free fall owing to the war.”
Health Care Dysfunctional
Many health care services have been rendered dysfunctional in the crisis-hit North West and South West Regions and victims of the crisis mostly rely on medical care from NGOs like Doctors Without Borders.
In 2020, the medical charity treated 180 survivors of sexual violence, provided 1,725 mental health consultations, performed 3,272 surgeries and transported 4,407 patients by ambulance more than a quarter of whom were women about to give birth, in the North West Region of Cameroon alone. That was before its activities were suspended in the region in December 2020.
“The people are paying a very heavy price for this situation,” Lampaert said.
“Since 2018, we have witnessed numerous attacks and acts of intimidation against healthcare facilities, and MSF was not spared from this. While we are now forced to withdraw our teams, we call on all parties to the crisis to respect healthcare providers.”
Martinelli describes the situation in Northwest Cameroon prior to the suspension of her team as “dire.”
“Hyper-violence was a regular occurrence. And medical access, including ambulance services, was falling way below the level to meet the basic and lifesaving needs of the communities living in the area,” she told The Epoch Times.
Raids on villages, kidnappings, torture, destruction of property, and extrajudicial killings have become the new normal in Cameroon’s English-speaking Regions, she added.
Fighting between the Cameroon military and secessionist forces continues unabated in the two English-speaking Regions of Cameroon. On Sunday, Aug. 23, gunmen opened fire on a church in Northwest Cameroon, killing a woman and fatally wounding a pastor. Both the Cameroon military and armed groups are trading accusations at each other.
Zenabu shudders as she recounts how her children were nearly shot one day on their way from the market.
“There are days we can’t step out because of gunshots everywhere,” she says.
“During shootings, we are forced to sleep on the floor for fear of receiving stray bullets. The following day, cartridges are seen everywhere. We live in fear, but we have no choice. We leave our life to God.”
She also remembers having seen “many people die from stray bullets in this area” following indiscriminate shootings between the military and separatist fighters.
Zenabu may count herself lucky for not having lost her children to the grenade explosion, but the trauma remains.
“I am traumatized and in need of help,” she told The Epoch Times.
“Finding food to eat is difficult.”
In 2020, the socio-political conflict in Cameroon was listed as among the world’s most neglected.
“Our ambulances have been fired on and stolen, community health workers have faced sexual assault and murder, armed men have opened fire inside medical facilities, and our colleagues have faced death threats,” Zacharia Mwati Emergency Coordinator of the medical charity in Southwest Cameroon told The Epoch Times in an email.
Today, the conflict in Anglophone Cameroon is stalled; while the government is counting on a military victory and refusing to discuss the form of the state, the separatists are demanding independence of the unrecognized Ambazonia.
“The main reason why the conflict has lasted this long is because both sides don’t seem to want to agree on the basis for any negotiation or mediation,” said Sunjo.
“There is deep mistrust and so violence seems to be the best option for both parties. Significantly, both factions seem to be fragmented, with hardliners and those who want a negotiated settlement. Unfortunately, the hardliners seem to have the upper in both camps,” he said. “There is need for both parties to first of all reconcile within their ranks before engaging in any potentially fruitful negotiation or mediation.”
To get out of the conflict, Sunjo insists the interest of the suffering masses “must be put first,” by both parties, “rather than the current show of muscle.