We are in a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s South-West region. The alleyway is full by the time Miracle sits down to tell her story. She and a few other neighbours have agreed to be filmed as they tell the world everything they have been through.
Her neighbours, some of whom have already spoken, gather around Miracle just out of camera-shot, bracing themselves to hear a story they know all too well. Because it is not just her story, it’s also their story – the story of how all of their lives changed when they were forced to leave their homes and flee to Buea for safety.
All names have been changed and last names have intentionally been omitted. The name of the neighbourhood where this interview took place has also been intentionally left out of this article, along with any other identifying information that can be used to trace down the current whereabouts or origins of those interviewed.
A hidden conflict
Since 2016, Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions have seen numerous violent attacks that have led an estimated 769,000 civilians to flee their homes. Despite the huge scale of the violence, the world has paid very little attention to this ongoing humanitarian crisis and few are aware of what’s happening.
Miracle is one of the many civilians that fled their homes. After the nightmare she has been through she is eager to speak up and let the world know all that she has been through. The 17-year-old’s eyes are expressive as she looks intently at the camera and fidgets with her facemask. Her story starts two years ago when she was just 15 years old.
“We were in the house one morning and suddenly we just heard gunshots. We started running towards the farm. Luckily, we had a hut out there. We stayed there for some time and then we heard more gunshots in the forest, and we started running again. I didn’t know where my father had run to. I got lost in the forest and I was there for two weeks without seeing my father.”
So what exactly is going on in Cameroon? The history of the conflict can be traced to a messy colonial legacy. After independence, Cameroon became a bilingual country with French and English as its official languages. The North-West and South-West regions are the two English-speaking regions and they comprise about 20 percent of the country’s total population.
Citizens in the two English-speaking regions had long reported feeling marginalised and in 2016, they began to hold protests against this perceived marginalisation. As the protests grew in scale, security forces cracked down heavily, resulting in loss of life.
In 2017, non-state armed groups in the North-West and South-West regions declared independence from Cameroon. The government rejected this secession, and the groups vying for independence are currently embroiled in armed violence with the Cameroonian military that has unfortunately left civilians, such as Miracle and her father, bearing the brunt of the violence.
Hungry and scared
Miracle will never forget the fear and hunger she experienced while she was in the forest. She tried to find her bearings and make her way back to her village, but she simply couldn’t.
“When I was in the forest for those two weeks, I had nothing to eat, and it was very difficult for me to cope. I was just crying. Crying and seeing blood on the ground. I found one banana and it was not really ripe, but I had to eat it like that.”
She managed to make the banana last for a whole week. Then, at last, she met a friend of her father’s, who took her back to the village. After being re-united with his daughter, Miracle’s father had a decision to make. He knew that things were too dangerous and volatile for his daughter to remain in the village. This was not the first time he had feared for her life:
“One day in school I went to use the toilet. On my way back I heard people screaming. They told me that they were removing my friends’ fingers, and that I should run for my life. If not, they would also remove my fingers. So, I had to run for dear life.”
Sent his daughter away
Miracle’s two-week stay in the forest was the last straw for her father. He decided to send her to live with her mother a few miles outside of Buea. The decision was a tough one because Miracle’s mother was out of work and not earning a salary. She was struggling to get by renting a single room. But there was no other choice. Miracle had to leave.
“I came here hoping that life would be better, but instead, there is no water. Here you have to buy water. Everything here you have to buy. Whereas in the village we have streams, and you can go fetch your water. And things in the village are not very expensive but here things are so very expensive. If you have no money, you cannot cope here.”
Miracle has enrolled in school but her mother struggles to pay the school fees. She told us that she would have liked to take extra lessons like some of her classmates, but her mother could not afford the fees. But although things are tough, she is relieved that she was able to escape when she did.
The world must wake up to what’s happening
Although Miracle is only one of more than 700,000 people with similar stories, the plight of those affected by the crisis in Cameroon is almost entirely under the world’s radar. Fear of retribution from the actors involved in the violence, has made many civilians reluctant to share their stories.
But after more than five years of unrest, more and more people like Miracle want to make sure that their voices are heard. Miracle’s plea is a simple one. Her thoughts are still with those that she left behind.
“There are still many people in the bush – my friends, my classmates, mothers and fathers. So we are pleading for you to help us.”
We must listen to Miracle and her plea for help. Help is unlikely to arrive if no-one is aware of what people are going through. The world must wake up to what is happening in this hidden crisis in Cameroon.