Updated Wednesday, Nov. 7: Kidnappers peacefully released 78 students (not 79, as originally reported), who were abducted from Presbyterian Secondary School in Bamenda, the BBC reports. They also freed a school driver, but the school’s principal and a teacher are still being held.
According to the Presbyterian Church of Cameroon, the kidnappers abandoned the children in one of the church’s buildings in Bafut, 15 miles from Bamenda.
The students were "frightened and traumatized but in good shape," Right Reverend Fonki Samuel, a local minister at the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, told the BBC. One hostage reported she wasn’t given enough to eat while in captivity. The children are being examined by doctors and fed before returning to their parents.
It is still unknown who was behind the kidnapping. The original story continues below.
Students are increasingly targeted by violence in the West African country Cameroon.
At least 78 students, and three other people, were kidnapped by armed men at Bamenda Presbyterian Secondary, a government official told CNN on Monday. Separatist militias, who recently boycotted schools in the area due to their opposition of English use in school, are believed to be responsible. The school — located in Bamenda, the capital city of Cameroon’s North-West region — agreed to close in response.
Authorities are currently searching for the girls and boys between the ages of 10 and 14, who were sleeping at Bamenda Presbyterian when men rounded them up and took off on foot, according to the BBC.
Regional Governor Adolphe Lele L’Afrique accused separatist militias of kidnapping the students, but the largest groups have denied involvement. Others have accused pro-government forces of kidnapping the students to make separatists look bad.
Separatists target students and educators in this region because they don’t approve of the school system’s limited English use. The groups are made up of members of Cameroon’s English-speaking minority, who are 20% of the population and feel marginalized in the predominantly French-speaking country, according to the BBC.
These militia groups, who go by “Amba,” have been fighting for the independence of Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions since 2017 and want to create a new region called Ambazonia. While one student is heard saying "Amba boys" kidnapped him in a video circulating on social media, it has not been confirmed whether or not the armed men are officially members of the Amba movement.
“One of my friends, they beat him mercilessly,” a student who hid from the kidnappers under a bed told the BBC. “All I could think about was to just stay quiet. They threatened to shoot some people ... all the big boys they rounded up, and the small ones they left them behind."
Students in the North-West region of Cameroon are vulnerable to kidnapping on a daily basis due to the strong presence of the separatist fighters in the area. On Oct. 19, five students were kidnapped at Atiela Bilingual High School and they still haven't been found, according to the BBC.
"They don't want any ransom. All they want is for us to close the schools. We have promised to close down the schools," said the Right Reverend Fonki Samuel Forba, a local minister at the Presbyterian Church in Camerooon, who told the BBC he spoke to the kidnappers.
Militant threats against schools aren’t the only education barriers Cameroonians face. According to a 2016 UNICEF study, nearly 1 in 3 girls in Cameroon are child brides, who are married before they’re 18 and often end up not finishing school.
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.
Human rights advocates are calling on the world to protect students in Cameroon, and around the world.
Devasted to hear about the kidnapping of 78 children by armed separatists from a boarding school in #Cameroon. Who’s children are they? They all our children. @UN peacekeeping forces and international community must act hand-in-hand with Cameroon and bring them back safely.— Kailash Satyarthi (@k_satyarthi) November 5, 2018
“International actors — especially the African Union, the United Nations, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States — should unanimously condemn violence against civilians and make clear that no political objective justifies tampering with the right to education and abducting sleeping schoolchildren from their beds,” Human Rights Watch researcher Jonathan Pedneault wrote in a statement.