When violence erupted in 2017 in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions of the country, in the northwest and southwest, there was only one thing for Esther Angah to do. She ran for dear life.
Four years later, the conflict, also referred to as the Ambazonia War, is still going on. Hers is the story of 700,000 Cameroonians forced to flee their homes, their lives upended and with little prospect of ever returning to normal.
They have had to get used to living like paupers after most agricultural activity, work and development areas such as schools and hospitals were interrupted.
Angah, 62, left her house in Munyenge in the southwest region in late 2017 with just her loincloth to cover her nakedness. There was no time to gather anything else, she told Nation.Africa recently.
In a commotion like that, where a fierce confrontation between the Cameroonian military and armed groups in the area broke out that day, fleeing with one’s life seemed more important than carrying any belongings.
Angah says that after she left her home, she spent several months foraging in the forest. She was with others like her who had suddenly become homeless and were now perpetually looking over their shoulders at every turn.
After some months in the forest, Angah came back home to collect her clothes and bedding. Her home and all those in her neighbourhood, however, had been torched.
She does not know who burnt the houses, but the scorched-earth policy has been employed frequently by players in this conflict.
“Homeless and with nothing to wear or food to eat, I had to return to the bush where we were hiding as guns were still smoking in several neighbourhoods,” she explains.
Lost her sight
Angah says that out of nowhere, she gradually started to lose her sight while they were on the run. She doesn’t know why.
But since she was still living in the forest, she did not have access to medical care when her vision started to become blurry. She turned to divine intervention.
“The people I shared these bushes with contributed FCFA500 (about $1) each and gave it to me as fare to go and see my daughter in Buea, [capital of the southwest region]. I pleaded with her to take me to the church for prayers.”
Angah and her daughter met a priest in the church, she says, but he did not show concern and they had to go back home. Then her daughter took her again to the Buea regional hospital, where she was consulted and prescribed some medication.
“I did not have money to afford the drugs because all my money, FCFA300,000 ($542) was burnt in the house in Munyenge,” Angah says, adding that by this point she was totally blind.
With no hope of ever regaining her sight, Angah went back to her daughter’s house, where she lived with other people who fled from different parts of the region and were being hosted in the same household. She says they were sleeping on the cold floors as there were no beds.
When Nation.Africa interviewed her in July, she had regained her eyesight. A humanitarian outreach programme by the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon came to her rescue, funding her medical operation at Acha Eye Hospital in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital. The cataracts that had covered her eyes made it impossible to see.
“It is like a miracle to me,” she said, recalling the operation.
Like Angah, there are many other victims of Cameroon’s drawn-out conflict who are suffering from and even dying of preventable causes like cataracts and malaria in the bushes and in host communities because of the lack of family or information.
The English-speaking northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon have remained volatile since a peaceful demonstration by teachers and lawyers, over perceived and real marginalisation, morphed into an armed conflict in 2017.
Armed separatists have been battling government troops since declaring the independence of a yet-to-be recognised country called Ambazonia - made up of the two English-speaking regions. The civilian population has been bearing the brunt.
More than 3,500 people have been killed, according to humanitarian organisations, and over 700,000 forced to flee their homes as a result of the bloody conflict that has consecutively topped the Norwegian Refugee Council’s list of the most neglected displacement crises in the world.
The socio-political tensions have also exposed women and children to health problems, and then denied them the basic right to healthcare. Thousands of people in the conflict-plagued regions, many of whom have fled into the bushes, do not have access to vital medical services.
Angah was identified during the humanitarian outreach programme that has been helping vulnerable people who are sometimes found in hard-to-reach hinterlands.
“I was informed by her grandchild that Mami Esther Angah, a blind IDP from Muyenge was living in Muea [a neighborhood in Buea],” says Elizabeth Esong Mbende, field mobiliser for the Presbyterian Community Rehabilitation Services project.
“I went there, talked with her and she accepted that we take her to the hospital. That is how I informed the office and we started following her up until she was operated in Douala.”
Julius Penn, manager of the project that is sponsored by the Christian Blind Mission (CBM) and the German Foreign Office, says they deploy field mobilisers to the hinterlands where they meet with IDPs’ host communities, identify cases and refer them for medical attention.
It is also thanks to the same project that 14-year-old Rejoice Kum, who went blind while in the third grade, was identified in Limbe in the southwest region. Like Angah, she was referred to Acha Eye Hospital in Douala for surgery.
Kum had dropped out of school when she became completely blind and after regaining her sight following the successful surgery, she went back to school years after her mates had graduated from primary school. But she was not discouraged.
“As we speak now, I passed the government common entrance examination into secondary school. I passed in List A,” says the elated Kum, who wants to become an accountant.
Though the humanitarian project is a great source of solace for victims of the armed conflict, Penn says they encounter a lot of difficulties implementing it.
“We have encountered situations where staff have been prohibited by non-state armed groups from accessing certain areas, for instance when they doubt the reasons the personnel provide for coming to the field,” Penn explains.
While Angah and Kum were ferried to Douala for medical checkups, future cases will not have to be referred to the city. With CBM support, the PCC has built a state-of-the-art paediatric eye hospital in Limbe in the southwest region where such surgeries will be handled.
Touted as the first such hospital in Central Africa, the modern medical facility is projected to improve the quality of life of 10,670 visually impaired and blind patients and their families with a focus on paediatric ophthalmology.