At the start of this year, I planned to write an article that mourns, honors and remembers the women that we have lost to the ongoing crisis in Cameroon – namely, the fighting between government forces and separatists in the North West and South West regions of my country.
According to the International Crisis Group, the fighting has killed over 3,000 people and displaced 600,000 more. In the Anglophone regions, 800,000 children are out of school and one in three of the region’s four million people are in need of aid.
Hardly a day goes by without news of deaths, abductions, arson attacks and other forms of violence that have become a reality for people in these beleaguered regions. And in this reality, women bear the brunt.
I knew then and now that one may never be able to list the names of all the women brutally murdered, mutilated or raped in this war. But I wanted to at least capture the names of our sisters whose stories played out in the media – those whose names became hashtags calling out for justice and seeking global attention to an underreported war with underfunded relief efforts. My list was going to include X for all the women whose stories we will never know, whose stories we are still afraid to tell.
I sat down and began the list. Watching women whose gruesome murders and mutilations were caught on camera brought back the anguish. I paused, wept and abandoned the story for several days; but I could not shake the feeling that maybe if we chronicled our losses better as Cameroonians, we would see that peace is the only sane way forward.
For this task, I enlisted the help of friends who sent me web links and newspaper clippings. The list of those deceased began to fill up. A friend asked if I was taking note of who was responsible for each death. I asked her: Why? Does it matter who killed the nurse returning from work? The old mother burnt in her home as she slept at night? The wardress returning from a funeral? The dead bodies found on the farm? She said: “Yes, you have to balance out the list and assign equal blame to both sides. Any list that has more victims from one side of this bloody war than the other, will make you a target. You know how it is.”
I do know how it is. Journalists in Cameroon are wedged between two belligerents in a war that has boots both on the ground and online. To have a voice and to use it – like I do – is to be seen as a threat. During this crisis, there have been countless kidnappings and arrests of journalists. Some colleagues have had their homes searched, their equipment seized, and radio stations burnt. Threats to journalists online and offline is normalized.
I decided to take the advice and attribute equal responsibility to both sides – the government forces and separatist fighters alike. This balancing act was beginning to sound like the dominant social media conversations. Often, the argument shifts from the loss of life to which side has done worse. “X has killed today, but Y did the same two days ago.” And on and on.
I became exhausted. I was revisiting old stories while hearing of new tragedies daily. An aid worker friend confided in me, saying he understood my exhaustion. He said that he had actually been kidnapped, and later released, but never shared the story publicly out of fear of retaliation. Our conversation shifted to the horrors some people have lived, or are living through, but cannot dare to speak up.
Exhaustion beyond words – only groans and silence can sometimes adequately capture these emotions. Just last week, there was a shootout in my hometown. I called family and friends to check in. When I asked how they were doing, one simply responded: “Alive.”
The experience many people are going through in Cameroon is too traumatic for words. It is even harder to write a story about an experience that one has not found the words for. Now I understand why the Wimbum – a tribe in Cameroon’s North West – rarely use words in their dirges. It is often a groan that captures the weight of the moment better than words ever could.
At the end, I shelved that now unfinished article. I groaned when I sat down again to pray for peace in my country. I didn’t say any words aloud. It was only silence, a sigh, and a deep exhale.
Comfort Mussais a multimedia journalist from Cameroon who has won a number of awards for her willingness to investigate sensitive topics, including government corruption and gender rights. The founder of Sisterspeak 237, she works to ensure that the mainstream media amplifies the voices of women and youth.
This article was first published on Vanguard Africa.