Bamenda: ‘Only the trade in coffins is booming’
Bamenda: ‘Only the trade in coffins is booming’
Once a thriving city in Cameroon, Bamenda has been stripped of its soul by the five-year war between English-speaking secessionists and the mainly French-speaking government.
Bamenda is practically dead. Only the trade in coffins is booming. Bodies are regularly dumped all over the city – in morgues, on the streets and in rivers.
City workers pick them up and give them a miserable burial.
“It’s a blessing to be buried, not to mention family and friends,” says a cemetery worker who picks up ten inexpensive caskets from a funeral home.
Demand has plummeted for the once popular elaborately designed coffins shaped like bibles, cars or beer bottles to reflect the lifestyle, interests or last wishes of the deceased.
“The coffins that used to sell for 1 million CFA francs [about $1,500] are out of service because no one can afford them. Most people can only afford coffins for 50,000 CFA francs,” explains an employee of a funeral home.
The regular funerals of young men and boys are a stark reminder of the conflict in the Anglophone North West and South West regions of Cameroon.
In just five years, this conflict has claimed tens of thousands of victims and forced more than a million people to flee to French-speaking regions and 80,000 others to take refuge in neighboring Nigeria.
The war has its roots in grievances that date back to the end of colonialism, when British-held territory was unified with French areas to create what is now Cameroon.
Many English-speaking Cameroonians have since felt marginalized and opposed what they see as attempts by the government – dominated by the French-speaking majority – to force them to abandon their way of life, including their language, history and their educational and legal systems.
Tensions exploded in 2016 when tens of thousands of people in Bamenda and other English-speaking regions embarked on a series of protests against the use of French in their schools and courts, as well as against the non-publication government documents in English, although it is an official language.
With the government ordering security forces to quell protests rather than engage in talks to resolve their grievances, young people took up arms the following year to demand independence for Ambazonia, as they call the two English-speaking regions.
Today, military vehicles – some of which are equipped with machine guns – constantly criss-cross Bamenda.
Residents say soldiers are raiding homes, making arrests, burning markets and even displaying the bodies of their victims, including militia commanders, at major junctions to warn residents not to join the fighters separatists.
Government forces have also suffered heavy casualties in the conflict, and the bodies of fallen soldiers are removed from the military morgue in the capital, Yaoundé, every Thursday and Friday.
Widows mourn the long lines of coffins draped in the Cameroonian flag, before soldiers are buried in the pomp and ceremony that characterizes military funerals.
Separatist fighters have also gained notoriety for the atrocities they have committed against civilians, including the beheading and torture of women they denounce for ‘betraying the struggle’, calling them ‘black legs’. – a term regularly used today.
They circulate videos of these atrocities to warn people of the punishment they face if they are suspected of collusion with the security forces.
On Monday, Bamenda becomes a “ghost town”, with empty roads and closed markets, part of a campaign of civil economic disobedience that dates back to before the armed struggle. These days, residents who dare to ignore the shutdown order are either shot,
The army and the police are also disappearing from the streets, so that they do not become easy targets for the separatist fighters who have a strong presence in the city.
Four years ago, the separatists even ordered the closure of all schools as part of their campaign. A few have bravely remained open, but the children dare not wear uniforms.
The military enforces a curfew virtually every night in the city, resulting in the closure of many restaurants, bars and clubs – once reputed to be the best in Cameroon – not to mention that the electricity supply has become erratic.
“The constant frying of popcorn scared everyone away,” says one waitress, using a metaphor to describe the incessant sound of gunshots.
She adds that it has also prevented those living abroad from returning home. Known as “bushfallers” – a pidgin term for hunters (in this case, in search of greener pastures) – members of the diaspora were responsible for Bamenda’s economic pace, sending money to invest in the once-thriving construction industry returning at Christmas to share their largesse.
But the authorities accused them of financing the Anglophone rebellion. Returning visitors soon found themselves arrested – some are now in high-security prisons in Yaoundé or Douala – while others simply disappeared. The Bushfallers’ money has dried up and no one visits them anymore.
Long-time resident Peter Shang, who once enjoyed city life, says people are now taking it one day at a time: “Life is a lottery. Too many things remind you of an untimely death. You talk to someone one today and tomorrow he is gone”.
For Marie Clair Bisu, there is a glimmer of hope – she sees her husband more, as he comes home before curfew.
“He has now discovered his children. He is a man who used to come home late, sometimes drunk, and would just go to bed. Now he can play with the children and consult their books. This conflict has brought us together “, she says.
“The only problem is that the gunshots always ruin our nights.”
And after a night of shooting, residents have to make several calls and listen to traffic to make sure the situation is safe before venturing outside. Despite this, gunfire has become so common in Bamenda during the day that people no longer immediately flee at the sound.
“What would we eat if we keep running? I have children to feed,” said a vegetable vendor.
“We just dive for cover and resume our activities when the gunfire stops.”
Another woman says her child has become so used to the sound of gunfire that she knows who is shooting.
My daughter is seven and she can tell if the sounds are coming from army machine guns or AK-47 rifles from “boys,” she says, referring to separatist fighters.
Nuns I meet on the side of a road in the city center say that they are waiting for a taxi to go to the orphanage of Abangoh.
According to them, the war has led to an explosion in the number of unwanted teenage pregnancies. Young girls who have been forced to flee their homes have faced sexual violence and exploitation from both sides. One of them angrily declares: “rape as a weapon of war is despicable”.
Around every corner, it’s evident that the very fabric of this once tinsel town, now piled high with piles of rubbish, has been steeped in the stench and misery of what many see here as a pointless war. .