Suiru sits wistfully outside his now new home in Ntahsen, a locality in Cameroon’s restive North West region. It’s a sunny Monday, but eerily quiet because of a separatists-imposed ghost town.
“I am often abandoned home when shooting begins,” laments the 32-year-old, who’s living with a disability.Crippled on both legs by poliomylistis at age 3, Suiru moves only with the help of a wheelchair, today broken down.
“My mother would keep a plastic bucket by the bedside to serve as my toilet, I defecate and urinate and then sleep next to it for days,” he narrated.
“The pungent smell remains inside the room where I sleep for as long as guns continue to smoke.”
The crossfire is between Cameroon government soldiers and Anglophone rebels fighting to form a breakaway State which they have christened, Ambazonia.
Suiru’s mother Bongfen, aged 73 explained she often locks her son for up to 6 days in a room before seeking refuge in a nearby forest whenever violence erupts.
Suiru’s story mirrors that of hundreds of his kind living with disabilities in Cameroon’s war-ravaged North West and South West English-speaking regions.
The two regions which constitute 20% of the central African State’s roughly 27 million people, descended into civil unrest in 2016 following government’s violent crackdown on peaceful protests.
Anglophone lawyers’ and teachers’ unions launched street demonstrations against the obligatory use of French in Anglophone schools and courts.
Since then, civilians – but most especially the physically or mentally challenged – have borne the highest brunt.
“Many of these PWD have lost their sources of livelihood, some have been abandoned by their families while others have lost their protective devices and cannot move,” said Limen Florence, disability advocate and coordinator of the Community Resource Centre for the Disable and Disadvantaged, CRCDD.
Limen, herself a physically challenged, recounted heart-wrenching scenes where other people living with disabilities were caught in the crossfire of the protracted conflict.
“One man who walks on crutches called Pa Ngwa, was shot on the arm as he was struggling to flee from gunshots in Bamenda,” she recalls.
“Another person with disability was shot dead in Esu, his house burnt down while his corpse was buried 3 days after by villages,” Limen said.
Survival Of The Fittest
Suiru narrated how he narrowly cheated death after his poor family’s makeshift home was burnt down by unknown gunmen.
“How I survived being burnt that day is still a mystery,” he recalled tearfully.
Relocating to the relatively peaceful town of Bamenda, capital of the crisis-hit region was a great relief for Suiru. But this came with its own challenges.
“There are days we go without food, I don’t remember the last time I went to the doctor, I cannot afford healthcare,” he says.
Thousands have been killed, hundreds of thousands others displaced by what has come to be known as the Cameroon Anglophone conflict.
Nearly 2 million people have been affected by the crisis with more than 592 thousand displaced within the NW and SW regions according to the United Nations Cameroon Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs(OCHA).
The report also reveals that 1.4 million people in the North West and South West regions need assistance. 376 Million US dollars is the funding required to meet the needs and only 51.5 million is available. At least 74,000 Cameroonisns have fled the crisis to Nigeria.
As people living with disabilities struggle amid the raging conflict, some reports have indicted humanitarian actors operating in the regions of failing to specifically help this vulnerable group.
“What they (humanitarian actors) do is give aid to the Internally Displaced Persons, irrespective of whether Persons with disabilities are included or not,” says Veronica Ngum, a person living with disability in Bamenda.
But Eunice Tita Tata, activist with the Nkumu Fed Fed organisation in Bamenda dismisses such claims –insisting special projects such as that to provide vulnerable people with assistive devices exist.
“With the crisis, caregivers have themselves become vulnerable and forced out of their communities, abandoning persons with disabilities to fend for themselves,” according to Tita.
“The consequences have been disastrous. Many of them are left for days without food, poor hygiene, zero medical care, thus making some lose their lives due to hunger or neglect.” Tita explains
Enongene amputated on both legs, lives in an uncompleted building in Fiango neighborhood in Kumba, South west region. Abandoned to himself by relatives fleeing the war, he has lost touch with the outside world for years. Without a wheelchair, a caregiver and left alone, Enongene survives from help from persons of goodwill.
“I am a shadow of myself. I just take each day as it comes. I don’t have anything. When it rains, I feel serious cold since the house has no windows,” Enongene
who was forced to flee from his comfort zone as a result of the crisis said.
A study by the Cameroon Baptist Convention(CBC) Health services disability inclusive humanitarian programme, reveals that 90% of persons living with disabilities have fled the conflict to the Cameroonian cities of Yaounde, Douala and Bafoussam.
Here, their conditions aren’t any better.
Julius Penn, Social worker for the CBC Disability Inclusive Humanitarian Action Project in the South West region says persons with disabilities in the region have lost their assistive devices like wheelchairs, whitecane, crutches and are facing increased hardship. Their actions on the field to aid these vulnerable people have been limited due to insufficient funds.
“There is an urgent need for humanitarian actors on the ground in the South West region to be intentional about addressing the needs of persons with disabilities,” Penn said.
To him, the crisis remains one of the least funded and so needs of PWD identified cannot be fully met.
“Donor agencies and other funding bodies need to come in and see how they can help reduce the sufferings of persons with disabilities in this region because they are living their worst,” according to Penn.
The Cameroon government has initiated a relief fund to assuage the plight of victims of the crisis. It provides them with basic needs like food, hygiene kits and medication, with little or no specific donations to persons with disabilities.
Angelica Bih Mundi, Director of persons living with disabilities in the Cameroon ministry of Social Affairs says a special budgetary allocation is disbursed yearly to social centres to cater for the needs of this class of people.
“These persons are already vulnerable and in times of war, their vulnerability increases, so the Cameroon government has been giving a special attention to these groups of people since the crisis began,” she said.
She said the government has been partnering with technical and financial partners to make this efficient.
“We received gifts of assistive devices like try-cycles, white canes, wheelchairs and even medication from the World Health Organization and channeled them to persons with disabilities in the two affected regions,” Mundi said.
She said some schools accommodating persons with disabilities were relocated to areas of relative peace to allow for a continuation of lessons.