Authorities say at least 78 children and their principal were kidnapped from a school by armed men in northwest Cameroon late Sunday night.
The children were taken from a Presbyterian school near the city of Bamenda, which is at the center of an Anglophone separatist movement.
On social media, a video purporting to show some of the students was released by a group of separatists called “Amba boys,” after Ambazonia, the name they have given the independent, Anglophone state they hope to establish, according to The Associated Press. The video reportedly shows some of the boys being forced to state their names and those of their parents.
The video has not been verified, but the AP reports some parents wrote on social media that they recognized their children.
“We shall only release you after the struggle. You will be going to school now here,” the men say, according to the news service.
In a statement, Amnesty International strongly condemned the kidnappings.
“The abduction of schoolchildren and teachers can never be justified,” said Samira Daoud, the organization’s deputy regional director for West and Central Africa. “Whoever is responsible must release and return the victims immediately. We express solidarity with the families of these children and demand that the Cameroon authorities do everything in their power to ensure all the pupils and school staff are freed unharmed.”
Most of Cameroon is French-speaking, while the country’s western portion is populated by English speakers. The Anglophone regions have frequently erupted into violence since late 2016, when a number of English-speaking lawyers protested that a newly passed law wasn’t translated from French. The demonstrations grew, with one particular source of ire being schools that are staffed by government-sent teachers with poor English.
The tensions have their roots in the country’s independence era. “Cameroon was colonised by Germany and then split into British and French areas after World War One,” the BBC explains. “Following a referendum, British-run Southern Cameroons joined the French-speaking Republic of Cameroon in 1961, while Northern Cameroons voted to join English-speaking Nigeria.”
The integration was not a smooth one, and the Anglophone minority complains of marginalization by the Francophone majority.
Hundreds have been killed in violence in the country in the past year, the AP reports. Last week, an American missionary was fatally shot in the head while in his car, apparently caught in crossfire between government soldiers and armed separatists in Bamenda.
Many incidents of violence have targeted schools in the region, according to a June report from Amnesty International that states:
“A widely followed boycott of schools was in place since late 2016, but since early 2017, school administrators and teachers perceived as not enforcing the boycott have faced increasing attacks by individuals and groups of individuals, acting on their own or in support of self-proclaimed armed separatist groups. Between February 2017 and May 2018, for example, at least 42 schools in the regions were attacked, including 36 that were damaged by arson attacks, 11 damaged by other types of attacks, as well as two school buses burnt down and various harassments and attacks on students and teachers. At least three teachers were killed during the same period and two school principals kidnapped.”
Cameroon disposed of its presidential term limits a decade ago, one of many Central African nations to modify or eliminate them. President Paul Biya has been in power since 1982. The 85-year-old just won his seventh term in an election that the BBC reports was “marred by low turnout and voter intimidation.” Turnout in the English-speaking regions reportedly may have been as low as 5 percent.
NPR Africa correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton contributed to this report.