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Divided by language

Cameroon's Crackdown on it's English speaking minority is fueling support for a secessionist movement.

The battle lines of the conflict in this Central African country are drawn by language.

Around 80 percent of the country speaks French; the rest speaks English. For decades, Francophones and Anglophones lived in relative harmony.

But over the past two years, violence spurred by this linguistic split has brought Cameroon to the brink of civil war. Hundreds have died, close to 500,000 have been displaced, and activists have been rounded up and jailed.

 The government claims armed English-speaking separatists who want to create a new nation called Ambazonia have terrorized civilians and attacked government forces, prompting the military to retaliate against them.

But in more than a dozen interviews, English speakers displaced by military raids on their villages recounted how Cameroonian troops opened fire on unarmed civilians and burned down their homes. Soldiers often arrived to Anglophone villages early in the morning, they said. But instead of looking for armed independence fighters, they fired indiscriminately, at times leaving the bodies of young men piled in the streets.

Witnesses and victims say the government’s use of force has driven a growing number of moderate Cameroonians to throw their support behind the armed separatists, a shift that threatens to intensify the government crackdown and deepen divisions between French and English speakers in the once-peaceful nation. If this conflict spreads beyond the Anglophone regions, it could destabilize the whole country, which is a key U.S. partner in fighting terrorism.

 “I don’t want Cameroon anymore,” said Daniel, a civilian who fled to Dschang, a French- ­speaking city close to the border of one English-speaking region after government forces attacked his village and shot an old woman dead. He spoke on the condition that his last name not be used out of fear of retribution for his comments, as did the other English-speaking Cameroonians in this story. “I want to fight for a new country.”

Late last year, the United Nations warned there had been a surge of violence on both sides. At least 400 civilians were killed in the preceding year, Amnesty International reported in September. Col. Didier Badjeck, spokesman for Cameroon’s military, disputed that estimate and said that around 170 Cameroonian troops had been killed as of November 2018. Among the hundreds of thousands of Cameroonians displaced are around 30,000 who fled to Nigeria as refugees, according to United Nations estimates.

Human rights groups have also accused separatists of attacking security forces and burning down schools, among other abuses.

The African Union has called for dialogue but affirmed its “unwavering commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of Cameroon.”

 for dialogue but affirmed its “unwavering commitment to the unity and territorial integrity of Cameroon.”

Cmdr. Candice Tresch, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department, said that the United States had received assurances from the Cameroonian government that U.S. assistance would not be diverted from its intended purpose, which includes fighting Islamist extremists in the north. She said the United States closely monitors “units serving in the Northwest and Southwest against whom credible allegations of gross violations of human rights have been lodged to ensure they do not receive additional training or equipment if and when they are transferred to areas dealing with the Boko Haram menace.”

“We will consider suspending or reprogramming additional assistance when and as necessary,” she said.

Tibor Nagy, assistant secretary of state for African Affairs, said the United States takes allegations of human rights violations in Cameroon seriously.

“The last thing we would want is [if] units that we were training to fight against terrorism are then used against populations in the Anglophone regions,” Nagy said.

The Cameroonian government denies that it is targeting civilians or burning down Anglophone villages. Issa Tchiroma Bakary, who served as communications minister until January, said that the military is defending civilians from the secessionists and that most Cameroonians living in English-speaking regions “are hostages of the separatists.” Badjeck said the military is burning only secessionist camps, not civilian villages.

Civilians who have fled Anglophone areas and advocates working with them tell a different story. Survivors and advocates say violent government attacks on villages have prompted an exodus from Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions in the northwest and southwest of the Anglophone region.

The Washington Post was unable to independently verify civilian testimony of military abuse, but the accounts given by displaced English speakers are similar to reports by human rights groups from the regions. The Cameroonian government denied Post reporters access to the country’s Anglophone areas.

“This has been the cause of a lot of displaced people who are actually homeless now,” said Ernest Folefack, a human rights lawyer running a census of displaced people in Dschang. “The majority are running from the government.”

Roots of division

As with other countries in Africa, Cameroon’s modern-day, bilingual identity was shaped by European colonial powers. Even its name, a derivative of the Portuguese camarões or “shrimp,” hints at Europe’s centuries-old control over the country’s identity.

In 1916, France and Britain seized the territory from Germany, and it was later divided between them. Then, in 1960, French-speaking Cameroon won independence and established a new nation: La République du Cameroun. The following year, English speakers in part of the British territory opted to join Cameroon, and a bilingual country was born.

Cameroon is home to more than 200 local languages, making it one of the most linguistically diverse countries in Africa. But French and English are its official languages, unifying its many ethnic groups.

French speakers largely control Cameroon’s government and its elite circles, and some Anglophones have long felt marginalized by the central government. President Paul Biya, a Francophone, has held office since 1982 and was reelected for another seven-year term in October, after a widely contested election. Many English speakers did not participate in the vote.

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