Parents of the 78 students who were kidnapped from their boarding school in North-West Cameroon Sunday have reason to celebrate.
The Bamenda Presbyterian Secondary Schoolstudents were safely released Wednesday night but they were told not to return to school, the BBC reports.
A school driver and principal, who were also kidnapped, are still being held.
Who was responsible for the kidnapping remains unknown — the government and separatist groups continue blaming each other. Anglophone separatist militias, who are violently seeking independence from Cameroon’s French-speaking government, recently boycotted schools in the area due to their opposition of English use in school.
The scene back at the school was emotional as parents reunited with their children who had just endured the traumatic experience, the BBC reported.
“I learned about the kidnapping on Facebook. I started praying for my daughter not to be among them,” Philo Happi, a mother of a 15-year-old girl, told Reuters.
“I discovered she was kidnapped. I was crying. I was scared. [Now]) the children have been found. I’m happy,” Happi said.
Alain, a 17-year-old Bamenda Presbyterian student, told Reuters the kidnappers grabbed them and forced them to run and covered their faces, but didn’t hurt them.
“They gave us kontchap [a mix of corn and beans] to eat,” he said.
But Mathel Majum, one of the students held captive, told CNN she was warned not to go back to class. “They said we should not come to school, as of now, because there is no peace in the country, and we cannot go to school since there is no peace in the country,” she said.
Right Reverend Fonki Samuel, a local minister at the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, told the BBC, "The release was done peacefully ... by unidentified gunmen. They were brought into the church premises."
Samuel said the kidnappers called the church and said they intended to release the children Tuesday morning, but heavy rains got in the way. The kidnappers abandoned the children in one of the church’s buildings in Bafut, 15 miles from Bamenda. Army vehicles picked the students up and transported them back to their school to meet their parents.
Sunday’s kidnapping was the second case at the school in less than a week, Samuel explained. On Oct. 31, 11 boys were kidnapped and then released. The church paid $4,000 to free them. Authorities don’t know who was behind that kidnapping, either.
Samuel ultimately isn’t worried about who is responsible for the latest kidnapping; he’s just "overwhelmed and happy" the students are safe, he told the BBC. Authorities from the Presbyterian Church said they would close schools in the North-West area to protect students, according to CNN.
The kidnapping of 79 children in #Cameroon's Anglophone regions is a tragic reminder of the deteriorating human rights situation in the country. Without swift international action, the crisis is likely to worsen. @hrw's commentary here: https://t.co/nQ0B3Jln3Cpic.twitter.com/1VNbRDb9M4— Iain Levine (@iainlevine) November 7, 2018
School violence is a widespread issue within the African continent and beyond. In 2014, over 220 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, were kidnapped by the militant group Boko Haram, sparking the international social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls. The Global Coalition to Protect Education coalition reported that in the last five years alone, there were more than 12,700 violent attacks in schools that killed more than 20,000 students and teachers around the world.
Experiencing school violence can have serious long-term side effects on children’s lives, often resulting in them skipping class or dropping out, which not only impacts their own lives but their entire communities.
During his inaugural address on Tuesday, Cameroon’s President Paul Biya said he is committed to resolving the conflict responsible for increasing violence against school children in the North-West, according to CNN.
"I have no doubt whatsoever that the destiny of our compatriots in the North-West and South-West lies within our Republic,” he said.
“I will strive to restore peace and calm in the two regions concerned with due respect for the institutions of which I am the guarantor."