To us here in Kembong, a village in the forested diocese of Mamfe (SW Cameroon), operation ‘ghost town’ is a phenomenon we know of only by hearsay. Elsewhere this collective act of civil disobedience in operation in English speaking Cameroon paralyses most towns and major villages every Monday as businesses are shut down, public transport is nonexistent and primary and secondary schools are on strike. This communal protest was initiated when common law lawyers and teachers went on strike in November to protest the perceived marginalization of the Anglophone provinces by the majority French speaking government. But as these ‘ghosts’ went around the towns and major villages in English speaking Cameroon, they never actively entered Kembong village.
However, on the 22nd September 2017 I witnessed a non-violent, peaceful march in which a good cross section of the population of Kembong and the neighboring villages participated calling on the Paul Biya government to stop the violence, and arbitrary arrest of English speaking Cameroonians and grant them their separate state as the Republic of Ambazonia. By this simple exercise of the freedom of expression, Kembong entered into the bad books of the government. This is how it all started. Peaceful marches with placards stopped and the tyranny, arrogance and intimidation of what the Cameroon government calls the forces of law and order entered the scene. Truly they are the forces who impose their own laws and order their arbitrary desires to be followed.
In the night of Thursday 28th Sept 2017, the armed forces entered Kembong village and destroyed people’s business premises and properties, the things most people depend on for their livelihood. Bullets rained down upon the village for close to two hours forcing people to cower in their homes full of fear and anxiety. A total blackout ensued. The following day the same destruction was visited upon the neighboring village of Nchang. Tyres of vehicles parked outside were riddled with bullets, windscreens were smashed and many more properties and business premises were destroyed.
The question that comes to mind is: why? Why have they chosen to do this to a population which is unarmed, to a people who merely expressed their disappointment at a poor system of governance. And more precisely why was this done at night? These and many other questions remained unanswered not only to me but to many people in Kembong village and its environs.
Early Saturday morning a 72 hour state of emergency was declared throughout the English speaking regions. In reaction to this the armed forces again went on a shooting spree in the whole village. As if this was not enough, they started to forcibly remove people from their homes, beating and torturing them. Those who had locked their homes and had run into the bush to hide had their houses broken into and some properties were looted. The shooting continued intermittently all through Saturday. The village was completely deserted. A good number of people took refuge in the parish house.
I watched these operations from inside my house in desperation. Whenever there was a lull in the shooting I ventured out either alone or with one of the Mill Hill missionary colleagues to seek out the officers on duty. I pleaded with them to stop the shooting so that calm would return to the area and people would be able to return to their homes. But to our utter astonishment they told us that since the governor had issued the decree, they would continue for as long as it might take to teach the people a lesson.
My question is who has caused the insecurity? Those with the guns or the civilians who were to be protected but have now become victims of the so-called insecurity?
Sunday 1st of October was a black Sunday for Kembong. As usual I went to open the church doors for Mass early in the morning inviting the armed forces by that simple act to patrol the church premises with their guns. But when I went over to ask them whether we could say a simple Sunday Mass their answer was a thundering ‘NO’. We went ahead regardless and celebrated Mass in the church behind closed doors. The tiny contingent of Mill Hill members present in Kembong were the only ones to attend. After all by virtue of their missionary oath they had already signaled their readiness to put their lives on the line should it come to that.
The same Sunday evening I got on the phone to the senior divisional officer to ask him further precisions about the content of the governor’s decree and how long this might last. His answer was: “Father, this is a security issue”. By this he meant me to understand that the current situation was a security issue and not a religious one.
Then he proceded to explain to me: “Father, you may be surprised to hear this, but our forces of law and order were attacked by hooligans in some parts of Mamfe”. To my question regarding the duration of the operation he responded: “ Until there is peace and quiet.” When I inquired further about the ban on all public religious worship, I was told: “Father, it is a security issue.”
The situation continued unchanged on Monday and Tuesday. Thinking that the state of emergency was over, I sent one of the Christians who was staying in the parish house to go and ring the bell so that we could have Mass. This prompted about six security personnel to enter the compound, but thank God they took no action and waited until we finished the Mass. Only then did they come to tell me that no Mass should be celebrated henceforth because the governor had said so. Acting like robots they gave us no breathing space.
Since Saturday 30th September till yesterday the situation has not improved. In fact it was made worse on Sunday the 8th October 2017 when four armed men approached me from the side door of the church while I was celebrating the Holy Eucharist and asked me to leave the altar and come to meet them outside. Since this occurred during the liturgy of the word, I sent one of our students on the Missionary Experience Program (MEP) from Nairobi to go and meet them as I continued with the Mass and he was instructed to come and order me to stop the Mass and send the congregation away. Most of us braved the situation, stayed calm and continued with Mass. I thank God for the strength and courage he gave us to participate fully and actively and to finish the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. My overwhelming fear was that the children and other fearful people in the congregation would run out of the church in a panic possibly causing a stampede as some children had already started running around in the church terrified. But fortunately some courageous adults managed to keep them under control.
Although a tenuous calm has returned to Kembong and surrounding places for now and life is timidly returning to normal, many young men and women are still in bush. Some families are still in hiding in nearby villages and I still host a couple of people in the parish house at night due to the fear of arbitrary arrest by the armed forces. The village is still tense, and our role in the parish for now is to try to restore confidence and assurance to those still in the bush or internally displaced. The next task is to begin to build peace between the forces of law and order and the people by reaching out to both groups in the village. As the youths shall slowly be returning home we shall try our best to detraumatize them.
Fr Tiberius Vuni mhm
Video showing Tiberius Vuni mhm with parishioners at Fonfuka parish: