Yaounde, Cameroon – “Daddy, I am going to school.”
Those were the last words Victory said to his father, Tamangoua Boniface, as he grabbed his school bag and walked to his school on October 24.
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And that was also the last time Boniface, the pastor of World Restoration Ministry in Kumba, a town in Cameroon’s Southwest Region, would see his 11-year-old son.
Victory was one of the seven children who were killed when unknown attackers armed with guns and machetes stormed Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy.
The brazen attack, which also left a dozen students wounded, shocked Cameroon. It also drew widespread condemnation from within and outside the country, including from United Nations agencies, international rights groups and local civil society organisations.
On Monday, President Paul Biya also denounced the “horrific murder” of schoolchildren and said “appropriate measures” would be taken to ensure the people responsible are arrested and prosecuted.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the attack, which took place in a part of Cameroon where separatist armed groups have been fighting government forces for almost four years.
In 2016, lawyers, teachers and others in Cameroon’s largely Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions took to the streets to protest against the dominance of French in the education and legal systems, echoing long-running grievances among the country’s English-speaking minority over their region’s perceived marginalisation by the Francophone-dominated central government in the capital, Yaounde. The government’s heavy-handed response to the protests was followed by the emergence of several separatist armed groups seeking to form a breakaway state.
Human rights groups have accused both sides of committing atrocities in a conflict that has killed at least 3,000 people. Amid a wave of arbitrary arrests and kidnappings, as well as extrajudicial killings and wanton destruction of homes and public facilities, the crisis has forced more than 700,000 Cameroonians to flee their homes in search of safety, with almost 60,000 crossing the border to Nigeria.
‘Lifeless on the floor’
The night before the school attack, Victory had stayed up until midnight studying and transferring notes to an exercise book, according to his father. After the family’s morning prayers, Victory cleaned the house and prepared for school. His mother, who was convalescing from a surgery, promised to make lunch before he returned home by 2pm.
But not too long after he left, a child came running towards the family’s home, his cries loud and unrelenting.
“When the child who was wailing got to our home, he fell to the ground and shouted ‘Pastor! Pastor! They have killed Victory; Victory is dead,'” said Boniface, 48.
“The child said some armed men came to school on motorbikes, went into classrooms and killed some children.”
Speaking on the phone, he paused for a very long time.
“When I got there [the school], I saw my son lying lifeless on the floor alongside two other kids,” the pastor said. “The deep wound on the left side around the ribs showed that he had been stabbed.”
He took a deep breath and paused again.
“Victory,” his father continued, “was among the first three victims who died.”
Anger over the attack has boiled over into expressions of public solidarity and street marches in some towns, including in Yaounde,
The hashtag #EndAnglophoneCrisis has also been widely used in recent days to reignite calls for an end to the conflict that has devastated villages, towns and livelihoods.
Some newspapers also mourned the dead by running a black cover page.
“Honestly, we did not find any words to express how we felt after the Kumba killings,” said Tarhyang Tabe, publisher of The Advocate Newspaper, a local weekly.
“As a newspaper which advocates for peace, we used our Monday publication to advocate for peace.”
But for parents who lost their children in the attack, the journey to recovery is arduous and thorny.
Njulefac Kingsley, who lost his 11-year-old daughter, Jennifer Anangim, sounded inconsolable.
A father of four (Jennifer was his second child), the 45-year-old architect said he went to his farm after his daughter had left for school, only to receive a phone call later from a friend informing him of the attack.
“I rushed to Jennifer’s school and found my daughter lying lifeless in the pool of her own blood with her head blown off,” Kingsley said, taking a breather.
A short period of silence followed. When he began to speak on the phone again, he said he became unconscious for nearly four hours after the incident.
“I had to go and try to gather pieces of my daughter’s head,” Kingsley said. “It is very difficult for me and my wife and Jennifer’s sisters and brother.”
Analysts say the shooting shows that there is a need to seek urgent solutions to the conflict and the endless cycle of violence that it has caused so far.
The Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, an NGO in Cameroon, said the attack violated children’s rights to education and life, and called for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Meanwhile, residents in Kumba continue to berate the attackers.
“There is no condemnation strong enough to articulate our full sorrow at the brutal attack and killing of innocent children struggling to pursue education which is their right,” said Shengang Richard, president of the Association of Family Welfare and Development, an NGO in Kumba.
Richard, whose organisation started a centre to teach children displaced by the crisis, is worried that the attack might derail efforts to get boys and girls back to school.
Separatist fighters often enforce a lockdown on Mondays in the Anglophone regions, keeping schools closed for nearly four years.
Teachers and students continue to face threats while the violence shows no signs of slowing.
“I am afraid that this school attack will undo our efforts to enable children to go to school,” Richard said. “When schools are attacked and children killed, it will scare kids from schools and undo the efforts of humanitarian workers who are working hard to help children have an education.”
For Boniface and his wife, the grief lingers on.
Victory was in the first year of junior secondary school. He loved gospel music and was an active member of the church choir, his father said. He played drums in church and loved playing football.
But, above all, he loved school, Boniface remarked.
“He dreamed of becoming an engineer,” he added, saying his son’s death is “very difficult to process.”
“My wife has been collapsing since Saturday,” he said.
Victory’s family is overwhelmed with hundreds of residents who have been visiting his home to sympathise with his parents.
“It is unbelievable the crowds that are trooping to our home to condole with us,” Boniface said.
But that is also because of the circumstances surrounding his birth.
Victory was conceived nearly nine years after his parents’ marriage. Couples without children are often stigmatised in some African societies, and married women without children are often described as “barren”.
“Victory was my first and only child,” Boniface said.
“My wife and I had him after eight years [and] six months in marriage with no child. When he was born it was a big testimony for us, that’s why we named him Victory.”
Comfort Mussa reported from Yaounde, Cameroon. Linus Unah wrote and reported from Lagos, Nigeria