KUMBO, Cameroon – Sounds of gunfire interrupted an anniversary Mass for the bishop of Kumbo, in Cameroon’s troubled North West Region.

Bishop George Nkuo was marking the 40th anniversary of his priestly ordination on the premises of St. Augustine College Nso on May 7 when gunshots were heard, sending participants to the ground. There had been an exchange of fire between government troops and separatist rebels near the facility.

The North West Region and the South West Region are the English-speaking parts of Cameroon, and a separatist revolt against the majority French-speaking central government has been raging for nearly five years.

Among the people attending the event were Archbishop Andrew Nkea Fuanya of Bamenda and Adolphe Lele L’Afrique, the regional governor.

“The government is determined to bring long lasting peace in this division and in the whole region,” L’Afrique said afterwards.

“No stone will be left unturned to bring normalcy to Bui Division [the larger region surrounding the city] and to the city of Kumbo. The pacification effort of the administrative authorities, the operation to secure the division and the whole region will continue and will be stepped up to face the present situation,” he added.

Cecilia Vernyuy, a member of the Catholic Women’s Association, attended the anniversary Mass, and said the congregation was frightened by the gunfire.

“We all went lying on the ground,” she told Crux. “It was scary. It was as if the Church had come under attack.”

During his homily, Nkea said the exchange of gunfire so near the Mass showed the closeness Nkuo had with his people in Kumbo.

“The bishop is exercising his ministry especially as chief Shepherd of the Diocese of Kumbo in these difficult times,” the archbishop said.

“And we are witnesses to the fact that he is close to his sheep, he is standing near to his sheep and he is ready to die for his sheep, and this is a very big testimony to the Gospel message which he is preaching to the people and which is given out to the world,” he continued.

“The goodness of the shepherd is seen in his willingness and readiness to lay down his life for his sheep and this is a sign that the good shepherd’s first quality is to love his sheep … We have seen this love through our people and his readiness to lay down his life in his 40 years of service in priesthood.”

In his own remarks, Nkuo used the occasion to make the case for peace in his troubled region.

“Jesus Christ tells us that he is the Way, the Truth and the Light, and we need to be able to face the truth as it is, we need to be able to look at each other and say, ‘I am sorry’ and reconcile. Each of us must be able to look at his or her neighbor and say this is my brother, this is my sister,” the prelate said.

“My celebration in the heart of this reassures me that it is possible, if only we can break down the pride, and cultivate the love for truth and justice, and to care for one another.”

During a brief meeting about the security situation in Kumbo, Mayor Vernatius Mborong said the separatists have made life “very unbearable” for the people of the city.

“As I speak, there are six of my workers who were taken to the bush just four days ago. And you can bear with me that living under these kinds of circumstances is not easy. You cannot walk in town. You are moving somewhere, you look left, you look right. What kind of life is that? We are going through hell,” he said.

Vernyuy, the member of the CWA who attended the Mass, said all she needs is for peace to return to the community.

“All sides should put down the guns. All are dying on all sides, both military and separatists. They are all delivered by women,” she told Crux.

“We are crying for our land and we are also crying for our children. All of them are delivered by women. A woman can never abandon her child. All we pray for is that peace should return,” she added.

Political analyst Edwin Ebako says the government’s military-first approach to the Anglophone crisis is misguided, and lengthening the conflict.

“Before, the government knew that they were going to crack the separatists down using the military, but that method has not worked,” he told local news channel, Equinox TV.

“And every time the government has tried to use the wrong procedure that has only given the boys (separatists) room to evolve,” he added.

“When this issue began in 2016, the government would have known and would have quelled down this issue before it escalated. The crisis is only going to intensify if the government does not directly address the root causes of this problem and get into an all-inclusive dialogue to resolve the problem genuinely for the interest of the people of this nation,” Ebako said.