AMBAZONIA, Cameroon — The road to Cameroon’s breakaway region of Ambazonia is a long and arduous trek along a dirt trail from the mist-covered highlands on the border with Nigeria, winding down through steep rainforest hillsides, fast-flowing rivers, and across a bridge woven from jungle creepers that dangles over a rocky torrent.
Before the war broke out two years ago, these remote forested borderlands were part of a national park maintained with aid funding from the German government. Now, they’re the heartland of an insurgency fighting an increasingly brutal and bloody war to carve out an independent state from President Paul Biya’s repressive control. Ordinary cocoa farmers are now willing to fight and die to preserve their English-language culture and institutions.
“This track that you are seeing here like this is only because of the military that is killing civilians,” claimed "Raphael," a 29-year-old cocoa trader turned commander in the Ambazonia Defense Forces (ADF), the outgunned and chaotically organized militia group fighting for the Anglophone region’s independence. (Names have been changed at the request of those interviewed.)
“The military are blocking all the good roads. They kill everyone from 13 years to 50 years old,” said Raphael. “That is why we are using hunting roads that our foreparents were using to go to the forest and hunt.”
Cameroon’s breakaway region of Ambazonia is covered in grasslands and jungle. Jackson Fager for VICE News.
The total lack of infrastructure in this part of Cameroon, perceived by Ambazonians as neglect by the French-speaking central government, is one of the main drivers of the insurgency. Yet at the same time, the general inaccessibility of this region preserves a fragile independence for these fighters and the local communities they recruit from — at least in rainy season. Wherever there are paved roads and towns, Biya’s forces are in total control, conducting a scorched-earth counterinsurgency campaign to put down the runaway region. International human rights organizations have raised concern over the insurgency and the government’s heavy-handed response.
The origins of this bitter conflict go back to World War I, when French and British troops invaded the then–German colony of Kamerun, dividing the region between themselves in a compact later formalized by the Versailles Peace Conference. Britain secured the border regions flanking its then colony of Nigeria, naming them the British Cameroons, while France assumed the mandate for the rest of the country. For the 50 years of colonial rule before independence, English became the dominant language of trade, education, and administration in what would become Ambazonia, while French was imposed on the rest of the region. In 1961, the inhabitants of the southern British Cameroons made the fateful decision to vote to rejoin their French-speaking neighbors in the new state of Cameroon, unlike their neighbors in the northern British Cameroons, who voted to join Nigeria.
“The military are blocking all the good roads. They kill everyone from 13 years to 50 years old.”
In the decades since then, according to Ambazonian activists, discrimination by the French-speaking majority and the suppression of the region’s British-derived educational and legal institutions finally crested in 2016, when the Cameroonian government responded to peaceful protests with a violent crackdown that soon transformed into oppressive military rule.
A bridge built by the locals to transport goods between villages. The Cameroonian government and its military has blocked off all roads that would otherwise be used for transportation and trade.
The situation was so intolerable, Ambazonian activists say, that only the war for independence launched last year seemed to offer a solution. Since 2017, more than 150,000 people have fled their homes as government forces have razed Anglophone villages to the ground. Cameroonian forces have been accused of indiscriminate torture, execution, and the rape and murder of civilians. But the government has defended its security forces, and pointed to violent attacks waged by Ambazonian separatists on the country’s armed forces and retribution against civilians supportive of Biya’s rule, claiming the counterinsurgency campaign is proportionate to the level of threat government soldiers face.
International condemnation has been distinctly muted — thanks in no small part to President Biya's powerful allies. Cameroon enjoys support from the United States for its regional assistance in the war on terror, and is a linchpin of French diplomacy in West Africa.
“We are fighting for freedom. We have no freedom,” said “Robert,” (not his real name) a young ADF commander. “When they colonize an area, they build a camp there, start terrorizing people. It is like you are in a prison: You don’t breathe normal like here, you don’t feel free, you go to somewhere and they just come and harass you, like, ‘Where are you going?’ You have no freedom of your own; you don’t even have the right to go and piss without answering questions.”
“They rape children, kill people without any reason, they just see young youth like this from 13 years upward and just kill — even pregnant women, they kill them, too, that’s the worst thing of it. Children are not safe. They kidnap our children and bury them alive.”
“Right now we are under attack”
We met “Robert” at a village almost two days' trek from the border, close to an ADF camp hidden in the forest near the village of Berere where we intended to stay. When we arrived in the village, the general air of ferment indicated that the situation was unsettled. Government forces, based in the garrison town of Mamfe just 4km from Berere, were in the process of attacking the ADF base, delayed only by a desperate rearguard action of inadequately armed militiamen supported by civilians felling trees to block the government’s path.
“Right now we are under attack,” Robert explained. “The military men came there since 7 or 8 in the morning. The villagers have run away, everybody is now in the bush, and only the Amba Boys are there trying to protect the community, because when they come to a community like that, they break down buildings. If there is nobody to kill, they just destroy houses, keep the places very, very difficult for people to live there.”
ADF fighters lack the weaponry to withstand government advances for much longer. Armed only with single-shot, homemade hunting shotguns and muzzle-loading pistols as well as machetes and improvised explosives, the ADF’s fighters are heavily outgunned by the U.S.-trained-and–equipped Cameroonian army.
A few hours earlier, Robert had walked from the front line to extract a wounded fighter and procure more shotgun cartridges for the battle, gathering “maybe 14 or 15” from the village. Showing me his homemade shotgun and the handful of cartridges he had strapped to his arm in a bandanna, Robert outlined the mismatch of force in stark terms: “If we have money to go along with dynamite, that means that attack will be nice because we destroy them, as many as we can, but when there’s no dynamite, we find it very difficult because they have guns that can shoot us from afar — if we don’t come close, like three meters away, you will not shoot with this thing. So we really find it difficult to even kill even one of them in the battlefield.”
A town in Nigeria near the border with Cameroon. Many refugees from Cameroon have fled to these border towns. The majority of the population rely on Cocoa farming as a means for survival.
The lack of resources available to the ADF fighters also hinders their command-and-control capabilities. With the Ambazonian political leadership living in exile primarily in the U.S. and Europe, the relationships between ADF units on the ground approaches near-chaos; anyone who can muster a handful of men and shotguns can call himself a commander. This is mediated only by the personal relationships between fighters and village elders, but it has obvious side effects, namely confusion and paranoia — as we found to our alarm. Even in the presence of an ADF escort, Westerners like ourselves were often confused for mercenaries in the government’s employ by angry and frightened villagers.
In each village we reached, villagers would accuse us of being government spies, and each time there was no ADF commander with the moral or political authority to tell them otherwise.
In one village, hostile farmers captured our ADF escorts, holding them prisoner for three days and flogging them with sticks after forcing us out.
On the ground, both the edicts of the Ambazonian government-in-exile and the wishes of ADF commanders appear subordinate to the long and heated deliberations of civilian elders in their village assemblies, a traditional form of democracy that, while admirable, may not be the most efficient political means of organizing an existential war.
With no means of communication in the bush other than sending runners ahead one or two days' trek along the hunting trails to meet other ADF commanders who may or may not be present, the difficulty of waging a co-ordinated military campaign using small units of civilians turned fighters became clear.
“We use grass to perform magic.”
It is perhaps no surprise then, that the outgunned and under-equipped ADF fighters place great faith in their traditional magical practices of odeshi or juju as a weapon. After explaining that traditional magicians derive their power from marrying the Queen of the Sea, the ADF commander “Raphael” assured us that if they had enough cash to purchase the necessary charms, he and all his men could be made both invulnerable to bullets and invisible, with the power of instantaneously transporting themselves across vast distances.
Fulani herdswomen in Cameroon's border highlands. Jackson Fager for VICE News
Before heading back to the raging battle for Berere, Robert swigged generously from a whisky bottle filled with magical herbs he assured us would preserve him from government fire. “Like the military have gunproof [body armor], because they can afford it, this is our own gunproof that we use grass to perform magic. This is juju: When you put whisky inside and then you drink a bit of liquid from it, you will be as strong as you can. The bullet will not penetrate into you. Even with those machine guns they have, they will not be able to stand [up to] us — this is one of the reasons we can still live today — without this, we cannot stand them, we cannot buy guns, we cannot buy bullets or even a car so we can move — this is our source of being alive.”
Government forces captured the camp at Berere a couple of days later, leveling nearby villages to the ground, according to ADF fighters.
When the rainy season ends, and the dirt tracks leading into the forest become passable to motor transport once again, it is likely that further government advances will drive more villagers to flee their homes, joining the exodus of refugees in neighboring Nigeria, and driving the ADF fighters further into their isolated fastnesses deep in the forest. If they can empty the Ambazonian villages of the civilians from whom the ADF derive their support, it is very likely that, without international intervention, the Cameroonian security forces will soon achieve some brutal form of victory.
But for Robert, clutching his bottle of juju herbs and the meagre handful of shotgun cartridges he had gathered before heading back to the battle, the ADF’s eventual victory seemed somehow certain: “I just have this mind that since I’m fighting for my rights, that I’ll win by God’s grace. We have stood up to tell them that we want them to leave us alone, so I believe God will see me through, even with nothing. I believe we will make it one day. Even if just one person survives, we will have freedom in this land, and that person will enjoy independence.”