Hundreds of thousands of children are not in school in English-speaking regions where an armed separatist campaign has continued for years.
There are no students in the playground of the high school in the Bomaka district of Buea – just the odd goat grazing on overgrown grass.
Buea is the capital of Cameroon’s Southwest region, one of two regions gripped by violence after anglophones launched a campaign to break away from the country’s French-speaking majority.
In Bomaka, almost all the schools have been closed since 2016. It has just one junior school that remains open, but whose roll call has slumped from around 600 to just 69 today.
“The crisis has killed the schools,” said Isaac Bissong, its headmaster. “Many pupils have left this neighbourhood to study elsewhere because they are afraid.”
In one classroom, only eight students were present. The silence in the once-bustling corridors was heavy.
Unlike other schools in the country, the green, red and yellow flag of Cameroon was nowhere to be seen. “That could get us into trouble,” said Bissong.
The school is located less than three kilometres (two miles) from Muea, one of the separatists’ strongholds and the scene of many clashes.
Bissong provides whatever security he can for the school, although he is not armed. He sits on a chair at the school entrance, on the lookout for potential trouble.
Deaths and threats
Anglophone separatists in the Southwest and neighbouring Northwest regions regularly attack schools that they accuse of teaching in French.
Teachers and other civil servants have been killed after being accused of “collaborating” with the central government in Yaounde.
Years-long grievances among the anglophone minority brewed for years, overflowing into a declaration of independence on October 1, 2017.
Armed separatists launched attacks on the security forces, triggering a violent crackdown.
The spiral of bloodshed has killed more than 3,500 people and forced around 700,000 to flee their homes, according to monitors. NGOs say that killings of civilians and abuses have been committed by both sides.
According to UNICEF, in 2019, some 850,000 children were not in school in the English-speaking regions.
In October 2020, a dozen men stormed the Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba, in the Southwest region, opening fire on pupils.
They killed seven children aged between nine and 12. A dozen others were shot or macheted.
On November 24 this year, four students and a teacher were killed by gunmen in the Southwest.
‘Children are dying’
“Children are dying, and teachers too, for providing an education that these armed people do not want, believing it is not good for their region,” Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, told AFP news agency during a visit to Buea.
“There’s a generation of children who are on the verge of becoming illiterate because they have not been to school.”
In the streets of downtown Buea, armed soldiers were on patrol.
Blaise Chamango, a parent, said she was constantly worried for the children’s safety.
“Before leaving them at school in the morning, I pray”.
“When we send our children to school, we can receive threats,” said another parent, Manu Dao. “I am sad because their future is at stake.”
Many families have fled.
In the Southwest’s coastal area of Souza, one school is hosting 596 displaced English-speaking children this year, out of a total of 1,087 pupils.
The pupils are sometimes crammed 90 to a class.
“Many of them are in a state of shock,” said school official Joseph Mencheng.
“Many have seen people killed, their parents in some cases. Sometimes, in the middle of a lesson, they bring up some horror they have experienced.”
Stephanie, aged 12, is in a class with children years younger than her.
“I left my village because there was a war and I couldn’t go to school for three years,” she explained.
Nine-year-old Dipanda is talking with three classmates in another crowded classroom.
She comes from a small village in the Northwest region. She says she is delighted to be back in school after classes were stopped “because of the war”.