Schools across Cameroon are due to reopen on 4 September, but in English-speaking regions separatist militias have warned them to remain closed as they enforce a boycott. Separatists have been keeping kids out of class for the past six years through violent attacks, leaving parents afraid to send their children back – but now religious leaders are calling for learning to resume.
More than 700,000 children in Cameroon's two conflict-hit anglophone regions have endured disruptions to their education since late 2016.
As a new school year starts, learning is at risk again.
Fighting to create an independent anglophone state dubbed Ambazonia, separatists target civilians who do not observe their calls for school boycotts or general lockdowns.
According to Human Rights Watch, school attacks are "systematic and widespread" in Cameroon's English-speaking North-West and South-West regions, and have resulted in the deaths or kidnappings of students and teachers, as well as the destruction of schools.
In a report published in December 2021, the watchdog said that the attacks, the resulting fear and a worsening security situation have caused two-thirds of schools in the two regions to shut, denying over 700,000 students access to education.
Now religious leaders are urging parents to overcome their fears and send children back to school.
The cross-faith campaign, titled "Stronger and better together", also calls on the government to ensure children can go back to school safely.
"Children must go back to school," said Archbishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya of Bamenda, capital of the North-West region.
The archbishop, who also serves as the head of the Cameroon Bishops' Conference, called education a "fundamental right".
"The best way to ensure the future of our country is via education. The only way to ensure the goodness and well-being of families is via education. So classes must continue," he said in a video message.
Bishop George Nkuo of Kumbo, a hotbed of separatist violence, addressed those enforcing the school boycott directly.
"Please, let our children go back to school," he pleaded.
The separatists who called for a school boycott in the first place are now saying that only private and mission schools can function.
Capo Daniel, president of the Ambazonia People's Rights Advocacy Platform and commander-in-chief of the Ambazonia Dark Forces – one of the many separatist armed groups operating in the English-speaking regions – told RFI that "all government schools are banned in Ambazonia".
The separatists object to lessons delivered in French under the francophone central government's curriculum. The boycott is also intended to pressure the government to concede to their demands.
Daniel didn't say what would happen if government-managed schools open their doors, but separatists have a history of setting schools ablaze, kidnapping teachers and students and sometimes killing them.
In their video message, Christian and Muslim leaders said grievances should not get in the way of learning.
No one "has the right to deny our children the right to an education", said Fonki Samuel Forba, moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, urging parents and the government to work together to uphold that right.
"We should create an enabling environment where children can go to school peacefully," agreed Reverend Charlemagne Nditemeh, of the Cameroon Baptist Convention.