When soldiers burst into her village in south-west Cameroon last month with guns blazing, small farmer Eta Quinta (32) raced into the forest with three of her children.
“I found a canoe and I used it to cross with my kids, not knowing where my husband and other two kids are,” she told Reuters in Nigeria, where thousands of English-speaking Cameroonians have fled in past weeks.
What began last year as peaceful protests by Anglophone activists against perceived marginalisation by Cameroon’s Francophone-dominated elite has become the gravest challenge yet to President Paul Biya, expected to seek to renew his 35-years in power in an election next year.
Government repression – including ordering thousands of villagers in the Anglophone south-west to leave their homes – has driven support for a once-fringe secessionist movement, stoking a cycle of violence.
The secessionists declared an independent state called Ambazonia on October 1. Since then, 7,500 people fled to Nigeria, including 2,300 in a single day fearing government reprisals after raids by separatist militants killed at least six soldiers and police officers.
The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR is preparing for up to 40,000 refugees.
Quinta and her children walked for three days through dense forests to reach a border crossing at the Agbokim Waterfalls. They remain without news of the rest of the family.
“There are many pregnant women in the forest,” Quinta said. “I have friends in the forest and am not sure if I will get to see them or their kids again.”
At the end of World War One, Germany’s colony of Kamerun was carved up between allied French and British victors, laying down the basis for a language split that still persists.
English speakers make up less than a fifth of the population of Cameroon, concentrated in former British territory near the Nigerian border joined to the French-speaking Republic of Cameroon the year after independence in 1960. French speakers have dominated the country’s politics since.
Cameroonian authorities say English-speaking separatists pose a security threat that justifies their crackdown.
New arrivals in Nigeria live mainly with host families who support them with food, clothing and shelter. The integration, a UNHCR official said, was made easier by pidgin English spoken on either side of the border.
Food and medicine are in limited supply. Four people died since coming to Nigeria and refugees sometimes sleep as many as 50 to a five-by-seven metre room.
Their anger has grown toward a government they feel no longer represents them, which could provide the separatists with easy recruits.
“We were walking for peaceful demonstrations … but it’s because of the killing of innocent people our own people started reacting,” said Tiku Michael, a businessman, farmer, father of six and now a refugee.
“Even … God himself, he will not allow things to go (on) like that.”