Rep. Ron Kind said the violence and human rights violations taking place in Cameroon in the ongoing Anglophone Crisis were “silent atrocities” that the world needs to pay attention to.
The stories he heard from civilians during his recent visit to the west-central African nation were “nothing short of horrifying,” Kind, D-La Crosse, said Monday in his La Crosse office.
Since 2017, the Cameroonian government has been fighting at least 10 separatist groups in the northwest and southwest regions of the country. The conflict has razed villages, burned schools, killed civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands of Cameroonians.
In Kumbo — a city in the northwest region of Cameroon and a sister city to La Crosse — 176 people, mainly students, have been kidnapped by unidentified gunmen at St. Augustine’s College. They were released a day later after negotiations.
Kind said a party from Kumbo traveled seven hours by bus through the contested area to reach the capital of Yaounde to share their stories with the congressional delegation that he was part of.
The purpose of the visit, led by Rep. Karen Bass, D-California, was to deliver a message to the Cameroonian government to end fighting and bring international attention to the conflict, Kind said.
Kind is a co-sponsor on a resolution introduced in the House by Bass that calls for Cameroon’s government and armed groups “to respect the human rights of all Cameroonian citizens, to end all violence, and to pursue a broad-based dialogue...to resolve the conflict in the northwest and southwest regions.”
The roots of the conflict can be traced to differences in language and educational and social structures shaped by colonialism.
Cameroon was colonized by Germany before it was ceded to the French and the British after World War I.
After French-controlled Cameroon gained independence in 1960, part of British Cameroon voted to join with the French-speaking Cameron. The other part merged with English-speaking Nigeria. A new constitution in 1972 recognized the joint French and English-speaking entities as the United Republic of Cameroon.
Despite the union, Cameroon’s government has been predominantly French-speaking. The English-speaking minority, who make up 20% of Cameroon’s population, felt the government favored people with French legal training and education for civil service positions.
In October 2016, lawyers and teachers in English-speaking cities in the northwest and southwest regions went on strike to protest the appointment of French magistrates and teachers who didn’t speak English to positions in English-speaking regions.
The government responded by blocking internet access and arresting protestors.
After separatist groups in English-speaking Cameroon declared independence on Oct. 1, 2017, the government labeled them terrorists and declared war.
Civilians caught in the crosshairs have been tortured, kidnapped and killed. An estimated 20,000 Cameroonians have fled to Nigeria to escape the fighting, according to the UN. About half a million Cameroonians have fled their homes.
Most of the atrocities have been committed by government forces, Kind said. Insurgents retaliated by threatening, kidnapping and killing civilians perceived to side with the government.
Kind said the delegation met with top members of government, though they just missed Cameroonian president Paul Biya, who left for Switzerland the day before they were scheduled to meet.
Government officials said they don’t like the violence either, but “they tend to blame it more on separatist groups ... trying to stir up trouble,” Kind said. “And that’s why the security forces have to come in. But we think they’re overstating their case.”
While it remains to be seen how the Cameroonian government will respond, Congress also has tools it can leverage, Kind said. That includes limiting the amount of assistance toward fighting Boko Haram, combating the spread of HIV and receiving trade preferences for the exportation of certain goods.
“They appreciate the relationship they have with the United States,” Kind said. “I don’t think they want to damage it any more that it currently is, given the humanitarian crisis in the Anglophone regions.”