YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Christmas is undoubtedly a time of joy in Cameroon like elsewhere in the world, but not in Kembong in Cameroon’s South West Region.

The entire village has fled fighting between presumed separatist Anglophones and government soldiers, which left four soldiers dead.

The Bishop of Mamfe, Andrew Nkea, has accused the Cameroon military of brutalizing villagers, forcing them from their homes and setting the houses ablaze.

After a visit to the area, Nkea said that two hours after the assailants left, “soldiers came into the village in three or four trucks and started beating up the people and burning houses. It’s an undisputable fact.”

He said he was “shocked and dismayed” at the fact that the almost 5,000 people had fled from the village.

The bishop said there were only about thirty people left in the village, and they had fled to the priest’s house, because “they had nowhere else to go.”

RELATED: English-speaking and French-speaking bishops divided over Cameroon crisis

Manyu Division, which contains Mamfe, has become the epicenter of the “Anglophone crisis” in Cameroon.

The current unrest began last year, when disgruntled lawyers and teachers began protesting the use of French in courts using the Anglo-Saxon common law tradition (practiced in the English parts of the country) and in Anglophone schools. The demonstrations soon spread to the general public, and the calls for outright secession started growing.

In a strongly-worded statement released on October 6, the bishops condemned “the barbarism and the irresponsible use of firearms against unarmed civilians by the Forces of Law and Order” and called on President Paul Biya to stop “the bloodbath and genocide that has skillfully been initiated in the North West and South West Regions.”

Map of Cameroon with Anglophone region highlighted. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons.)

The past couple of weeks have witnessed separatists battling the military in bloody conflicts in Mamfe.

“Several suspects have been arrested, large quantities of war and hunting weapons as well as hundreds of military ammunition and uniforms have also been seized,” Communication Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said during a press conference on December 22.

In a circular letter read in churches across the diocese on Christmas, Nkea noted that “the crisis has been grave in our Mamfe Diocese…and this has led to untold suffering, confusion, abandonment of residential villages by the population, many deaths among the Cameroon military, civilians and unknown assailants, and fear among the people.”

The escalating conflict has led to at least 7,500 English-speakers fleeing across the border to Nigeria, and the UN refugee agency said it is bracing to receive up to 40,000 people.

A call for 40 days of prayer

Nkea said in his Christmas circular letter that he doesn’t see any “human solution” to the ongoing crisis – at least in the short term.

“It is difficult, almost impossible, to imagine how this crisis is going to end,” the letter states.

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“As the uncertainties mount up, especially in the heat of celebrating Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace, we think that human powers are failing us, and we need to make a desperate call directly to Jesus Christ the Prince of Peace. We therefore call on all Catholic Christians, all other Christians and people of goodwill to pray intensely for peace. We call on all to join us in special prayers for God’s supernatural and miraculous intervention for peace in our land,” the bishop said.

The letter calls on Christians to dedicate at least 30 minutes of their time daily for forty days to the “silent adoration of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament before morning Masses every day in all parishes and Institutions of the Diocese of Mamfe.”

“It is an undeniable fact that prayer is the soul and breath of every Christian,” the bishop said.

Divisions are hardening in the country

The conflict has put the Anglophone bishops of Cameroon at odds with the president, who has declared secessionist Anglophones to be “terrorists.”

“I think that things are becoming clearer to everyone now that Cameroon is victim to repeated terrorist attacks from a secessionist group. In the face of such repeated aggression, I’d like to assure Cameroonians that measures have been taken to eliminate these criminals and bring back peace throughout the national territory,” Biya said earlier this month.

RELATED: Leader of Church in Cameroon calls on president not to seek re-election

But leaders of the Anglophone secessionist movement have vowed to continue attacks on security outposts in the English-speaking regions.

“We are asking Mr. Biya to take his forces out of our country. We have taken the destiny of our nation into our hands,” says Ayaba Cho, the man in charge of defense for the ‘Federal Republic of Ambazonia’ – the proposed name of the putative country the separatist Anglophones wish to create.

He said Ambazonians will fight for the restoration of their statehood “that was taken from us in 1961.”

Cameroon’s bilingual and bi-cultural status derived from its colonial heritage. Initially administered as a German Protectorate in 1884, Cameroon would later be shared with France and Britain as League of Nations Mandates after Germany was defeated in the First World War.

The end of the Second World War and the establishment of the United Nations saw the two parts of Cameroon transition from mandated territories to UN Trust Territories.

In 1960, the northern part of Cameroon administered by France gained its independence. The southern part administered by Britain as part of Nigeria was in 1961 subject to a plebiscite in which they were offered independence by reuniting with their francophone Cameroonian “brothers” or by remaining part of Nigeria.

The results showed an overwhelming desire by English-speaking Cameroonians to reunite with the French-speaking part of Cameroon.

The “marriage” was guaranteed by a Federal Constitution that was meant to preserve and protect the minority Anglophones and their colonial heritage. But in 1972 then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo organized a referendum that dissolved the federation in favor of a united republic, thereby removing the protections Anglophones enjoyed.

Currently, Anglophones make up around 20 percent of the population.