South West(National Times)-It is more than two years since the Anglophone conflict; born out of simple corporate demands morphed into a war, which some have described as “a senseless war.”
However, September 22, 2017 would enter historical records as the day the conflict officially embraced a violent twists, which has since then led to the death of hundreds of persons and displaced many.
According to the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in Africa, more than 411,000 persons have been internally displaced by the conflict with most of them taking refuge in major Francophone cities like Yaoundé, Douala, Bafoussam and Dschang.
However, some of these Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have sought refuge deep inside the forest into jungles which were hitherto farmlands or habitats reserved for the wild.
We recently took a visit to one of these jungles in one of the Division of the South West Region. During our sojourn, we discovered that instead of the usual farmland and wild inhabited by animals, cities have now sprung up within the forest.
Site And Situation
For the purpose of security, we have chosen not to name the particular area or place. The main road linking the village square and the forest is bumpy, full of valleys, hills and gullies, making sure only specially enhanced cars and bikes can penetrate. However, from the road to the newfound settlement, it takes continuous trekking for hours into the heart of the tropical evergreen forest of Central Africa.
There, everybody knows everybody and strangers are not welcomed since they are always considered as spies.
The new life is quiet with less of noise and the hustling and bustling of regular village life. As we ventured deep we found a market which is organised by the villagers.
Buyers come from the town to buy farm products, while others come to sell goods bought from urban markets and cities. The area is a major cocoa hub and with access to the main city. Cocoa is farmed and dried in the forest and buyers invited with specially enhanced pickups and bikes to buy the products. There is also a business centre which is so popular to the extent that it is named after a Western metropolitan city.
At first instance the people look very happy with a new found community life. One local leader even noted that, “after the war, I don’t think I would go back to the village, I am fine here and I have everything; my generator, television, radio and life is quiet here.”
Another local inhabitant argued that life in the forest is even better than the village as the community is more united and they spend less on goods and services. According to him, there is no ghost town in the forest and curfew which ensures that they spent more time in their farms working than when they were at the village square.
Almost everything has gone back to normal to these people and even the local palm wine tappers still retained their jobs. Every evening, they would go to their hubs and fetch the precious natural white wine and move to the business centre where a handful of mostly men are already waiting.
Traditional soft drinks and beer are also sold as well as cooked food. Mama as she is popularly called was selling cooked food before the war started. She has also moved into the forest with her family and she said business is going on well.
There is real cooperation and brotherhood in the forest as everybody has a space to set up family life. Even those who did not own pieces of land for themselves have been offered one by other villagers who may possess many.
The Forest Church
As these villagers moved into the forest, they also carried along their Christian passion. We are told by a retired civil servant who falls in the elite class of the villagers, Pa Clement (not his real name) that few weeks after they ventured into the forest, it became clear that they are in for a long stay, so he gave a piece of land and a makeshift church was constructed.
The structure is mostly made of roughly cut and shaped sticks with locally made roofs sheltering those inside. It is interdenominational as it is used by the various Christian bodies that represented the village.
Offerings collected are not given to any particular church grouping but used for the welfare of all villagers. Occasionally, Pastors and Priests come from neighbouring areas to lead worship, especially when there is an event.
This is how the Presbyterian community in the forest joined the rest of their peers to launch their 2018 Harvest Thanksgiving, which turned out to be a joyous celebration.
Child Birth And Medical Care
Even in the midst of war, there are people who fecundate. With no access to proper medical healthcare and hospitals, babies are born through the help of experienced mothers and sometimes retired medics in the forest.
Moreover, birth ceremonies are well celebrated. “The night that she gave birth, we moved from bush to bush with our touches and when we got to their hut, there was real celebration. Sometimes I get the feeling that ladies who put to birth in the forest are well taken care of than when they are in the village,” a lady in her 40s said.
Despite some of these extraordinary medical triumphs, severe cases are always transferred to the hospital in town. This was the case of Mama Marie (not her real name) who had an accident on her leg. She spent a in the district hospital pursuing treatment. When we asked the husband where the money for treatment came from despite being in the bush, he laughed and said; buyers come into the forest for cocoa in the bushes.
Despite all of these, healthcare services remain a major headache as some of these displaced persons perish because of lack of medications and medics.
Living Alongside Ambazonia Fighters
In their different testimonies, villagers argued that the main reason why they left their houses for the forest was because of military brutality.
They said in previous encounters between the military and the Amba Boys (a popular name referring to Ambazonia fighters), after many military men were killed, they transferred their aggression on the local population, killing many unarmed civilians.
The case of a popular cocoa buyer in the village was told, wherein, he was shot dead by the military at first sight even though he had no arms and was not given the opportunity to express himself.
Some of them said they chose the forest because it is far from the bang-bang noise of exchange of gunfire.
However, in this vast forested territory now occupied by these villagers whose number we cannot estimate, Amba Boys are not far from reach.
These fighters who were mainly hunters, farmers and jobless youths in the village have built camps deep inside the forest from where they launched their guerrilla attacks on military installations.
Some of the villagers said they have actually been to the camps especially when there is a dispute. Amba Boys have imposed their legitimacy in the camp to the extent that some cases are tried by them while the remnants of the elderly class try some. When asked whether Amba Boys have ever attacked them, they answered in the negative and said the boys sometimes help them when they are facing challenges. However, some excesses have also been recorded.
In one such unfortunate situation, a teenage girl was raped by one of these Amba Boys. We were told that this particular author of the crime was not from that village because he could have known the girl who is a popular village hero.
The parents of the girl went up to the camp and reported to the Commander who severely punished the young man. The visibly unsatisfied parents of the girl told us that the Commander of the camp is a little bit soft-hearted which is why he has not passed the death penalty on the guy.
“If it were in location xxxx, this guy would have been killed by the Commander, there they are more disciplined,” he said.
The situation in this particular forest-city may seem lively, but not a perfect representation of the general situation of IDPs in the forest.
According to Ayah Ayah Abine, the President of the Ayah Foundation which has been visiting some IDPs in the forest, some of these villagers in the forest live in deplorable conditions.
Some of them have been killed by snakes while others died because of no medical condition. In one online video, women were seen using leaves as sanitary pads. Meanwhile, most of these IDPs in the forest told us that the much heralded Government aid of FCFA 13 billion to displaced persons has not reached them.
In recent developments, the United Nations has opened a liaison office in Buea, the capital of South West Region to cater for the needs of these IDPs in the cities and forest.
However, the ideal would be to prevent this conflict which is less expensive and wherever they are already on course, priority should be given to negotiation and mediation.