Up Matem Junction in Santana lived a middle-aged couple with their five children, the first two boys and the others girls. Andrew Abughe was the man and Debora Kieng his wife. Debora Kieng was a housewife who did farming to feed and sustain her family. A decent lady to most people, she was devoted to her family, doing her best to educate her children with proceeds from her farms; she was ensuring that they didn’t grow up illiterates like her and her husband.
Her husband, Andrew Abughe was a popular butcher in the neighbourhood. A tall, bulky and severe-looking man, he had a bearded chin and a black twine-made native cap. He was a conspicuous figure at Santana cattle market and at the Matem butchery. He was one of a few butchers at Santana who could buy three or four cows at the cattle market to slaughter within one week. Young butchers booked for portions of the animal to be slaughtered in view of retailing before paying to Andrew Abughe. So business ingrained, he was hardly at home. Abughe drank a little too much and kept late nights, largely leaving the weight of their children’s education on his wife, a disturbing situation to Khan Marcel, their first son.
When the socio-political crisis hit Santana, it affected life in every household and children were unable to go to school. Santana people expected the crisis to end within a short time, but it did not. It dragged on for years, degenerating by the day. Parents sought alternative activities to education for their children, trading or a trade, being quick choices. Nevertheless, parents who could afford it got their children out of the restive zone to Bache and other towns East of River Matem where they could school conveniently.
Debora tried on several occasions to convince her husband to raise money for their two sons, Khan Marcel and his younger brother to cross over to Bache and there continue schooling. Khan resorted to selling carrots at Matem Junction to raise some money for his own education. He and his mother had put pressure on his miserly father to disburse money to no avail; he told them that butchers owed him and he had no money; he blithely promised to do something with time, but never did.
Bache and Santana lay facing each other, Matem sandwiched between them. But the separation was no hindrance to the inhabitants of either locality since a concrete bridge had long been constructed over River Matem linking Bache and Santana. Unlike River Matem that flowed in a fixed direction, the population flowed up and down the bridge, going to or coming from Matem Junction, the life-full joint.
Bache people did a lot of farming and market gardening, producing carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, leeks, green beans and other vegetables and food crops. They groomed their progeny to make money from the soil and by trading. Introduced to money at an early age, the children generally cared little for education. It was different with Santana where arts and crafts, bustling commercial activities and a high level of education were routine activities. Parents sacrificed a lot to invest in their children’s education.
Santana lay to the West of the country, Bache to the East. Bache spoke French and Santana English, languages and cultures they had inherited from colonial masters.
Often, while all Matem boomed with life, Bache slept like still water and when darkness embraced and folded Bache at sunset, Santana was lighted brilliantly. The two zones cut the image of Tonga North and Tonga South in VILLE CRUELLE!
Matem Junction, by induction therefore, was the melting pot of social activities in that part of the country. Vehicles plying the major ring road that linked both parts of the country passed through Matem, being thereby obliged to slow down or even halt completely for a while to pay revenues at the toll gate. Sometimes, passengers got some lettuce, carrots, cabbage and other garden crops at the stop. Retailers and petty traders of garden crops assailed the passing vehicles, humming like bees with various items. Congestion heightened daily when trucks lined up to load bags of Irish potatoes, avocados, water melons, leeks and several green spices to carry to Douala, Yaounde, Gabon , Central Africa Republic and Equatorial Guinea. Since more passengers travelling from the West to the East preferred night journeys, Matem junction often steamed till late after midnight. By 0 4:00 a.m., it was awake again as vehicles from the East began arriving Santana.
In the bustle, Khan Marcel and Feukeng Abigaël met at Matem almost every day. They sold carrots and roasted fresh maize, a survival of the fittest setting that obliged them to daily lend each other a helping hand. In consequence, they became so friendly that one found the day boring and difficult to operate in, in the absence of the other. Marcel had dropped out of school since for three years; schools had not been effective in Santana. He had turned twenty without the Advanced Level Certificate. Conscientious parents had their children enrolled in Bache and elsewhere, but Khan’s father had little interest in his children’s education. His wife sympathized with the children but lacked the wherewithal to sponsor them in Bache or elsewhere.
Feukeng Abigaël came from Lower Bache where education was in French. She was unlike other girls in Bache who seemed to think of nothing else apart from getting married, littering babies and working in farm gardens with their spouses. Abigaël loved school, but lacked a sponsor. Born out of wedlock to a mother who abandoned her to her own mother just after she was weaned, Abigaël was brought up by her grandmother. When Abigaël reached Form Four and her grandmother got handicapped by infirmities, Abigaël started struggling to raise some money to get back to school and to cater for both herself and her grandmother.
The campaign for school boycott in Santana filled Matem Junction with many kids and teenagers working hard to sell one thing or the other. Many of them cared little for school, eventually becoming delinquents. A good number of these teenagers joined the ranks of various militia groups that were sprouting up in Santana like mushrooms. Marcel and Abigaël shared ambitions, especially of education. Often, they only separated when it was already dark, which soon led to their becoming so intimate that many believed they were in love. This was also justified by Abigaël’s frequent visits to Khan’s home. Khan’s mother was welcoming, which this encouraged her to visit them whenever she had nothing left to sell.
The steam of activities and the ambience of Matem caused the people to inadvertently create a lingua franca from English and French called ‘Francangalais’. This was eased their communication difficulties in the junction point of French and English. The use of Francanglais at Matem crushed the line between Bache and Santana in terms of speech and the set-up epitomized communal harmony, conviviality and sincerity in affections.
Politics being a game of interest and lies, the unfolding trends of political friction in the country brought on wrinkles even to teenage faces at the market junction of Matem. Movement got tightly restricted, almost impossible, with the intimidating military stationed he almost everywhere. Thanks to them, in three successive attempts, Abigaël was unable to cross the checkpoint to Matem Junction. Each time she mustered courage and walked up to the check point, she was motioned back with a rifle. And her case was not isolated; it was just how people were treated, irrespective of whether they had their travel papers or not. There were three control points between Bache and Matem, one of them a customs’ check point, which indirectly hinted that, that was a frontier point. Gendarmes, soldiers and police officers of the rank and file from various units, all armed to the teeth, and in combat outfits of helmets and bullet-proof vest swaggered there. Their every move ostentatious, they pompously blustered and bullied road users. The stern look in their coal black faces and the crude order emitted from their raspy throats were enough to send poor Abigaël back each time in terror. You could say that the military spread over Santana like wild black ants. They erected sandbag towers ready to swallow up the soldiers like ant-hills in the event of any attack.
The next check point was only a stone’s throw and with a similar décor. In addition, there was the toll gate fiercely guarded, and also barricaded. The precincts of buildings manned by soldiers were sandbagged against bullets to a height of one and a half metre. Like all other dwellers in the area, Abigaël and Khan felt great discomfort with the scenario. These were new features in their environment and were exasperating, eliciting consternation that came on all each time sporadic gunshots began. The shooting was generally randomized to instill fear in the riff-raff ranks that were pet named Amba Boys. The shots were meant to remind everyone that authority now rested on the barrel and the trigger. And indeed, every now and then, fleets of armored vehicles and military trucks filled with soldiers raised clouds of dust as they sped to the northern zone for reinforcement. The natural speed bumps created by running water did not restrain the racing trucks with soldiers dancing within like marionettes.
The depressing conflict began with the demand of reforms in the educational and legal systems in the English speaking part of the country whose cultural heritage was different from those of the Eastern Zone. Peaceful protests met with brutal repression from the military, worsened by some overzealous men who made callously offensive utterances to further enrage the marginalized English-speaking minority. A state official once, for example, compared the minority population to two cubes of sugar in a sea, insinuating that they had no choice against their predicament. To this insult was added brutality that went with random killings and whisking of others to military detention camps that were virtual catacombs. Others were simply made to disappear. Pushed to the wall, resistance is inherent in man. And so, rather than being engulfed by debilitating angst, embittered youth rose to the occasion. They formed armed groups to protect their people with no better weapons than sticks, catapults and stones. They could easily be identified by their red badges, the red badge of courage being a piece of red cloth which they tied on their head, arm, neck or wrist. From sticks and stones, they soon upgraded to locally made Dane guns. But even sooner than imagined, they were so strong that they imposed a complete shut-down on economic activities on certain days of the week. In the degenerating process, a campaign for the boycott of schools took effect in the English part of the country. The respect of the ghost towns was so effective that Matem was often abandoned to military forces on ghost days. They military forces, idle in the event made capital of the days by havoc. The market junction became as lonely and haunted as a graveyard on such ghost days. The military however, used the day to hunt down suspected armed boys, in the process, massacring innocent civilians.
The tussle for power led to an administrative imposition of a dusk-to -dawn curfew, restricting movement between 06:00 p.m. and 06:00 a.m. The curfew shifted the nocturnal ambience from Matem to Bache so, Bache woke up at night falls, as petty traders, lining the roadsides with lighted bulbs and bamboo benches displayed assorted market items; the targeted customers being travellers to and from Santana who alighted from vehicles to walk past the three routine checks within less than 300 metres.
One Sunday afternoon, Khan’s parents went out to attend their monthly village meeting, and they were caught by the curfew. They couldn’t find a taxi back, and darkness falling fast; so they decided to walk home as darkness descended, becoming thicker. The butcher and his wife hastened their steps to get home before it became too late. They knew they could cover the two km distance in minutes. They had succeeded to secure a loan from the meeting and planned to discuss at home that evening, the eventual move of at least their two sons to school in Bache. Marcel and his siblings went to bed without seeing their parents, after Marcel got tired of waiting because he knew the plan. He believed his parents would take a wise decision for security’s sake. In any case, it wasn’t possible to call and find out where they were because they had been several days of blackout in Santana that ran down phone batteries. The army of occupation too took advantage of the blackout for routine havoc on civilians. Private homes were raided, ransacked, looted, and burnt; women, including grandmothers were raped while babies and even domestic animals were slain on the excuse that they were not collaborating in the search for the armed militia. Fear eventually drove everyone there to early bed. Those who had no toilets in their houses kept buckets for sanitary use at night.
Marcel got up early next day worried because they had been thunderous gunshots in the night and he didn’t know where his parents had slept. He hoped they had begged to sleep in someone else’s house since it had become a common phenomenon for people for the sake of safety, to sleep wherever darkness caught them. Later that morning, some women came wailing to their house. Panic-stricken Marcel and neighbours inquired earnestly, evading the conjecture of the obvious.
It was simply mind-blowing to think of death as a possibility. But as more people gathered, it became clear to Marcel that one of his parents had been killed. But when the news broke like lightning that both had been shot the previous evening and that they died on the spot, Khan almost went insane.
People had found his parents lying in their own pools of blood by the roadside at Upper Santana. The man had been shot in the head and the woman in the chest. The only possible reason for their death was a violation of the curfew because the couple couldn’t in any way be mistaken for militiamen.
Khan dashed out and in a few minutes was staring at the motionless bodies of his parents. It was a cruel dream he could never forget. Just the previous morning, he and his mother had managed to convince his father to take a loan from the village meeting (if he had no money as he claimed) to enable him and his younger brother to cross over to Bache and enroll for the GCE. There they lay, parallel, unable to notice his presence. Khan wept bitterly and walked away, unable to withstand the sight any longer. One thing held his mind: to know everything about his parents’ death. So, while family members and neighbours were making arrangements for the burial, Khan was shuttling from one law enforcement authority to another.
The rate at which people were murdered had changed the community’s attitude towards corpses. They were buried as soon as possible and sympathizers and mourners hurried away unusually, fearing for their security. Khan wanted investigations to be carried out on the macabre act and the culprits brought to justice and sanctioned accordingly. But at the public security office, he was chased away by the police officers who even threatened to arrest him. He moved to the State Counsel’s office but the place had been deserted since many state workers were being kidnapped for ransoms. He thought of the contingent at Matem, the commanding officer there knew him and his father and would surely cooperate. But there, the Commander told him in French: “Nous sommes en guerre, monsieur, et en guerre, on ne fait pas des enquêtes sur les morts.”
Khan shuffled home in frustration to witness the burial of his parents; deep pain and consternation.
The agony gnawed, an atrocious and long dream. After the burial, people dispersed in a hurry, leaving him, his brother and three sisters to spend the longest awful night of their life. He had hoped that in the following weeks, he and his younger brother would be attending school in Bache, preparing to write their certificate exams. Now, all hopes were dashed!
Late that afternoon, Abigaël came along with other friends they used to sell together at Matem. They brought some palm wine, cooked food and cubes of soap to condole with their friend. Abigaël spoke for the group. She went close to Khan, held his hand in tears and asked him to accept their heart-felt condolences.
They were all youths, struggling to make ends meet amidst the crisis, but the loss of both parents at a traumatic blow. She urged him to find a way to mitigate the loss so that they could forge forward. While they ate and drank some palm wine, Marcel thanked them in a mournful tone and recounted to them how he had struggled in vain the whole morning to get assistance from the security men to illuminate the tragedy. As the other friends left, bidding him farewell, Abigaël lingered a bit to have a last word of consolation with her friend.
“Marx, I’m so sorry for everything, but we will turn a new leaf; we will try on our own to catch up with future challenges.”
“Well, Abigaël, thank you for the love and concern. We had hoped to forge on together, but the world has torn us apart, I must tell you. I’m terribly wounded and I pray you forget about me as soon as possible. They killed my parents like stray animals and I can’t let that go!”
“What do you plan to do, Marx? They can kill you!”
“Anything, I’ll do anything! These guys have brought the lawlessness of the East into our land with the complicity of egoistic politicians who, in their demagogic game of interest and lies, don’t’ care a damn as they mutely watch the army murdering the innocent, our mothers, girls and relatives; raping and not only looting but burning down whole villages. This carnage must be confronted squarely. Now, I do not just believe but know that Amba Boys are right, very right, to pick up stones, pestles, sticks and catapults in self-defense.”
Darkness was falling, the curfew bell soon to toll. So, Abigaël hurried away distraught. She knew Khan Marcel was implacable and it would be a waste of time to try to make him change his mind, whatever he had as a plan. As she moved away, Khan reflected on the predicament of the Santana people and their misfortunes. They were seen by their politicians and others only as resources to be exploited. People in Bache were now making quick money from migrant passengers from Santana and the so-called IDPs– people who had lost everything they had in the world to flames, for no crime, were running away to hide their heads.
Certainly, the enemies were happy with their fate and wished the war to last longer. That evening Khan Marcel collected his father’s butchering knife, his double barrel gun and a few items and left. The others had slept. It was a thick night. He left a brief note on the table for his younger brother, telling him what to do and that he should not bother about his whereabouts.
That night, he enlisted in one of the camps of the Ambazonia Liberation Forces ( ALF ) showily and lovingly referred to as Amba Boys. He quickly won their confidence by narrating his parents’ tragedy.
A few weeks following, Marcel was spotted at Matem selling carrots again. He looked more serious than before and was even friendly to the military. But in the guise of selling carrots, he spied on them, taking note of all their ambush points, where guards took cover and locations; their ammunition, and the number of military men at each control point. Twice or thrice, he hid himself in the toilet to report his findings to the ALF commander. He monitored the reinforcements made at the approach of the curfew time and informed his camp. The plan to take over Matem was finalized on his return to the camp. Action time was set for 03:00 a.m.
The raid was well coordinated and swift. Boys had been assigned to take care of those placed on guard at strategic positions. The fierce battle that lasted for two hours had Khan wearing his father’s black traditional cap, his mother’s head scarf knotted on his neck and a red badge of vengeance on his left arm. As soon as the soldiers on guard were slain, he knew where to find the commander; in a stockade with a foxhole that to him was his bastion. He bounced into the fort and before the fox had time to slip into its hole, his gun was knocked off his grip and there was a tight elbow-grip around his neck and a butcher’s knife at his throat.
“The slightest move you die!” Khan hissed, tightening the grip on his neck. Other boys rushed to his assistance and the commander was captured. Meantime, deafening gunshots filled Matem Junction and its surroundings as the soldiers fought to brush off the attack.
“Tell your soldiers to drop their weapons!” The approaching Amba Commander ordered.
“Jusqu’au bout!” The francophone commander shouted to his forces, knowing Amba Boys did not understand French. He was wrong. Khan cried out to their commander that he had asked his men to fight to the last instead.
“Kill him!” The young ALF commander ordered and Marcel slit the throat cleanly. He pushed the trembling half-dead body forward and down muttering: “En guerre on ne fait pas des enquêtes sur les morts.”
Eleven soldiers lay dead. The rest escaped, some seriously wounded. ALF took over control of Matem border zone at the ultimate cost of two of their brave fighters. They were certain that the enemy would fortify and return with fury. The ALF commander called for immediate backup from the neighbouring camps; Amba Boys more determined to control the Matem border area thereafter.
At dawn, people came out timidly to listen to rumour and gossip on the attack. None had slept after the shooting had started at 03:00 a.m. Amba Boys blocked the road and no one crossed from Bache to Matem and vice versa. They were poised to capture or gun down any suspects. No one from Bache was trustworthy, they held.
Story Continues …