YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Based on what he’s heard in the confessional amid a bitter civil war, a Catholic priest serving in his African country’s troubled southwestern region says “the Devil has unleashed himself on the world and has taken up residence in Anglophone Cameroon.”
The priest, who asked not to be identified for security reasons, says the separatist conflict rocking Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions has not only brought untold hardship to the people, but is replete with horrendous stories of heinous crimes and sins, and he is witness to those sins as he hears confessions.
“Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the things I have heard in the confessional have affected me terribly, and I am now depressed and desperately in need of psychological assistance,” the priest said.
“The job of a Catholic parish priest is to say Mass and hear confessions,” he said. “This is not an easy thing because everyone is welcomed into the confessional, and so long as their confession is genuine, I must give them absolution on behalf of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
He said he’s used to hearing confessions of such sins as jealousy, hatred, violent anger, theft, corruption, infidelity, and other ordinary matters, but the separatist conflict has come along with a new set of sins for which he was never prepared.
“I am not breaking the confessional seal if I mention the sins but not the sinners,” the priest said, whose parish is located in Ndian in Cameroon’s southwest region, and who also visits other mission stations in more remote areas.
Since 2016, Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions have been plagued by violence amid a conflict that broke out when teachers and lawyers went on strike over the use of French in Anglophone schools and courts. The government’s hardline response led to the development of a separatist movement, with fighters engaging government soldiers in attempts to create a new country to be called “Ambazonia.”
Against that backdrop, the priest said he’s heard unimaginable horrors in the confessional.
“Someone confessed cannibalism to me. He said the price for Odeshi powers, when bullets do not penetrate you, is to eat human organs. Can you imagine? While some people are harvesting organs from dying people to save the lives of others, we are busy eating them.”
Odeshi is a term in the Igbo language literally meaning “it does not leak,” and it’s used to refer to allegedly magical immunity to injury claimed by some militant groups.
“People confess rape and murder. Another said he had killed a girl a few days before, and was feeling bad because the girl is the daughter of my catechist in that village. I died inside when he told me this, and I died a second time when I came out of the confessional and remembered that the seal prevents me from ever telling this man that the person who killed his daughter is the same young man who greets him every day as he walks to and from his farms,” the priest said.
The priest said he sometimes gets so angry that he wants to chase some people away from the confessional, and deny them absolution.
“But I hold myself together, and do my duty with love and care. Perhaps these people will have a change of heart,” he said.
Still, the priest said, the revelations he’s heard leave deep psychological and spiritual scars.
“How do you rape an underage girl? How do you douse the elderly with petrol and set them alight because you suspect that they engage in witchcraft? I confess my great anger as I say these words, but in the end, I am also a man just like you,” he said.
“In fact, I am a man first, and a priest second. The man in me is extremely angry,” the priest said. “Every day I am reminded of the horrors around me. My Jesus on the crucifix directly behind me at the altar has only one leg because the other was blown off by a bullet.”
The fighting in Cameroon has now entered its seventh year and has left at least 6,000 people dead, according to the International Crisis Group. It’s also forced at least one million people from their homes, according to the UNHCR.
Human Rights Watch claims the conflict has been characterized by multiple violations of human rights, such as extrajudicial executions, torture, and arbitrary detention. Both sides have targeted civilians, including separatist rebels attacking schools and government forces setting fire to whole villages. Intrusions by armed organizations from nearby nations such as Nigeria have made the situation even more problematic.
The international community has called for an end to the violence and for dialogue between the government and separatist leaders. However, efforts at mediation have so far failed to bring about a lasting peace.
The priest who spoke to Crux said that although he’s been traumatized by what he hears in the confessional, but can’t leave the area without the permission of his bishop, and in any event, the priesthood has always been his dream.
“I chose this life so I could accompany people on their journey through this world,” he said.
“However strong my feelings of anger are towards these people, I cannot abandon them because as the song goes, ‘Christ came to call sinners, not the virtuous.’ We are all called to be like Christ in our lives,” he said.