BAMENDA, Cameroon — Hundreds of women gathered for an angry protest in Cameroon on Friday against abuses committed in months of fighting between the government and Anglophone separatists.
With some singing, weeping, crying out or praying, the women described the rapes of their daughters and killings of family members as civilians are caught in the crossfire. Nearly 200,000 people have fled.
The women who gathered in a stadium in Bamenda city in the heart of the conflict called for an urgent dialogue on peace. They say they want to leave their homes and go without fear to the market and fields as before. They say they cannot remain silent and want to denounce what they call a dirty war.
The unrest in the southwest and northwest is a major issue as largely French-speaking Cameroon faces elections in October, with 85-year-old President Paul Biya, in power since 1982, running again.
The unrest that began in 2016 with teachers and lawyers demanding respect for the regions' English education and justice systems led to a government crackdown and the emergence of armed separatists seeking an English-speaking state.
Tensions rose further in Bamenda on Thursday when a headmaster and three teachers were kidnapped by armed men.
"We are calling on the powers that be that women want peace," said a protest organizer, Adah Mbah. "We do not have any hidden agenda anywhere. We are tired. For more than two years, we cannot be quiet."
Many women at the protests carried leafy branches of so-called peace plants. Others clutched rosaries or dressed in black. They sat on the ground.
"The women are the ones mourning. The women are the ones managing their homes ... they are struggling in all ways to survive," said another organizer, Akouoh Aline. "We want our leaders to see our pain."
In July, then-United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said he was deeply alarmed by reports of abuses in the southwest and northwest. Human rights groups have accused both the government and separatists of abuses including torture and the burning of homes.
The government has condemned separatist attacks and defended its security forces, saying all alleged atrocities are investigated.