Schoolchildren have become pawns in the fierce conflict between Cameroon’s mainly French-speaking government and separatist fighters demanding independence for the country’s English-speaking heartlands.
The separatists are enforcing a lockdown across cities, towns and villages in the North-West and South-West regions to ensure schools remain shut for a fourth academic year in a row.
The regions are heavily militarised, with troops battling insurgents who use hit-and-run tactics.
Schools were due to open on 2 September – instead parents and children have been fleeing their homes in their thousands as they fear an escalation of the conflict.
Most schools in the two regions – including in villages – have been empty for three years, with buildings covered by long grass.
In some areas, the government deployed troops to guard classrooms but with the army being the main enemy of the separatists, this increased the risk of attacks by separatist gunmen.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, Unicef, says the ban on education has affected about 600,000 children, with more than 80% of schools shut and at least 74 schools destroyed in the troubled regions.
In one incident, 80 pupils, their principal and a teacher – who defied the lockdown – were kidnapped last year, before being released about a week later.
Separatist fighters denied involvement, but the government blamed them for the abductions.
It triggered mass protests and morphed into a rebellion the following year as some civilians – angry that the government deployed troops to crush the protests – took up arms.
Thousands of people – civilians, separatists and soldiers – have been killed and more than 500,000 displaced.
The economy is also in ruins, with businesses going bankrupt and workers not being paid.
Worst of all, children have been orphaned and some of them have gone into the bush to join one of the many armed groups that have emerged to fight for what they call the independent state of Ambazonia.
What was once unthinkable has become a reality: Cameroon – like some other African states – now has child soldiers.
They blame government troops for the deaths of their parents and have vowed to take revenge.
The separatists have targeted schools, more than anything else, because they are the softest of targets, and because they want to thwart the government’s efforts to make children – the next generation of English-speaking Cameroonians – fall under greater French influence.