BAMENDA, Cameroon (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The families of 80 pupils kidnapped from a school in western Cameroon before being released days later said they feared their children would face a similar fate to Nigeria’s Chibok girls.
Kidnappers freed on Monday the last of 80-odd children taken hostage last week in a raid on a school in the city of Bamenda - a center of the country’s troubled English-speaking region where separatists are fighting to form a breakaway republic.
Most were released last Wednesday, but two boys, the principal and a dormitory warden remained hostage until Monday.
Moments after being reunited with the freed pupils in a school yard, several relatives told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they feared that they would never see the children again - and were now afraid to let them return to school.
“I immediately thought of the Chibok girls in Nigeria,” said one university student - who declined to be named for his safety - whose younger brother and sister were both kidnapped.
About 220 Nigerian girls were kidnapped from their school in Chibok by Boko Haram militants in 2014. Since then, about half of the girls have been found or freed, dozens have been paraded in propaganda videos and an unknown number have died.
“The whole family was traumatized,” the student said, adding that he had worried his siblings would be forced to become child soldiers for separatist groups in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions.
Other relatives dreaded the prospect of their girls being raped and impregnated by the unknown kidnappers.
“I feared the worst,” said the father of one young girl, who like other relatives asked not to be named for safety reasons.
“A young girl is fragile and I remembered the Chibok girls, some of whom have never been found. I heard that others had become pregnant. I imagined all this happening to my daughter.”
The scale of the kidnapping was unprecedented in the country’s long-running separatist crisis and a lack of official information fueled confusion in the wake of their disappearance.
The Cameroonian army has accused Anglophone separatists of carrying out the kidnappings, but a separatist spokesman has denied involvement.
The secessionists have imposed curfews and closed schools as part of their protest against Biya’s French-speaking government and its perceived marginalization of the English-speaking minority. The government has denied discriminating against them.
Following the release of the pupils, several parents said they did not want their children to return to school.
“I think she shouldn’t go to school anymore,” said the father of a girl who had been kidnapped. “If she had been killed, school wouldn’t have been of much use to her.”
Reporting by Thomson Reuters Foundation, Editing by Kieran Guilbert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit news.trust.org