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YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Crouched on a low, bamboo stool in a one-bedroom house in the Obili neighborhood in Yaoundé, Clarise prepares dinner for her twin girls and her fiancé.
The twins, four years old, have just returned from school in a Catholic orphanage which takes care of orphans and underprivileged kids, many of whom have fled a raging conflict in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions.
“Can you count from one to one hundred?” Clarise asks one of the kids. As the child, whose name translates to “God Acts,” excitedly begins to count, Clarise speaks to me, almost in a whisper. She asked not to be identified by her last name.
“I don’t know their biological father … but I don’t care,” she says with a wry laugh.
Clarise used to live in Kumbo, the epicenter of Cameroon’s separatist violence. Five years ago, gunmen invaded her village, and she was one of the women in the village who was raped.
“I can’t recognize the men who raped me,” Clarise tells Crux.
“They were masked. And they were wielding guns. I wasn’t the only one who was raped. There were five of us who were raped, and two died,” she said, fighting back tears.
“They,” she said, pointing to her twins, “are the result of that rape.”
Cameroon has very strict abortion laws, with those who engage in it likely to serve jail terms or pay financial fines, but there are exceptions. Abortion is allowed in case the mother’s life is in grave danger, or in case of rape or incest. But Clarise said the idea of aborting her pregnancy never crossed her mind.
“Terminating a pregnancy is synonymous to killing someone,” Clarise told Crux.
“I am a Catholic Christian. My Catholic faith does not allow for abortion, and so I had to keep the pregnancy.”
Clarise says she feels absolutely proud of her twins and considers them “a gift from God.”
“When I look at these children, they don’t remind me of the rape. They remind me of God’s love,” she told Crux.
“If I am thinking about the trauma, God will be angry because instead of one child, he gave me twins, and we are talking here about my first pregnancy. I’m the first person in our family to have given birth to twins,” she said.
“I think these kids brought joy to many people. First, they are the first twins ever to have been named by our traditional ruler. And the meanings of their names make a statement: One’s name means ‘God Gathers,’ and the other means ‘God Acts’.”
Clarise acknowledged being traumatized both by the rape, and by the attack on her village.
“When the crisis started, the first person shot in Kumbo was my cousin. They shot him and ran,” she recalls.
Even as she struggled to raise the kids, soldiers attacked her village, forcing her to flee.
“One day, the military came and were burning homes in our neighborhood. They set fire to our house and I was inside bathing the kids. I just managed to fold them inside a loincloth, collected whatever clothes I could, held them with one hand and covered their mouths with the other to stop them from crying,” she said.
“I took them out of the house through the backdoor and behold, I met one soldier. I thought that was the end of our lives, but it seems God was acting through him. He showed me a way out of the area. That’s how I was able to escape with the kids and boarded a taxi to Bamenda, and ultimately to Yaoundé.”
In Yaoundé, Clarise suffered anew at the hands of men. They would sleep with her and then dump her, with the usual excuse being that they can’t get married to a woman who had been raped, with two kids to show for the experience.
“I was stigmatized by men. It took me many years to find love again,” Clarise says.
“When I found this one (her fiancé, with whom she now lives), he said that no matter the circumstances, he loves me and he loves the children. He has accepted the children. They call him ‘father,’ and if they grow up knowing him as their father, I will love it.”
“As we say in our village, the person who plays the role of a father in your life doesn’t necessarily have to be your biological father. If somebody raises you up and provides for you, that person can equally qualify to be called your father.”
Clarise said she would forgive her rapists if they were to ask for it.
“I will still forgive them, because I don’t bear grudges against them.”
Her only wish is that the separatist conflict should end because every new death, burning or rape reminds her of her own ordeal.
Conflict erupted in Cameroon in 2016 when teachers and lawyers in the two English-speaking regions took to the streets to protest the overwhelming influence of French in Anglo-Saxon schools and courts. The government responded with lethal force, and the demands morphed into the political realm. Cameroon’s English-speaking regions started asking for more autonomy.
A separatist wing developed and took up arms to fight for the independence of the English-speaking regions. The conflict has gone into its seventh year, and has left at least 6,000 people dead, over 700,000 forced to flee from their homes, with 70,000 others taking refuge in neighboring Nigeria.