BUEA, Cameroon — The African Cup of Nations in Cameroon sparks memories for Tiku Achale of what soccer used to be like in his hometown before the fighting and the killings.
Achale remembers fans wearing Cameroon team shirts and carrying flags as they walked down the streets on gameday, even if Cameroon was playing across the country in the capital Yaounde or somewhere else in the world.
Some of the most dedicated would wear the entire team uniform, complete with soccer boots, he recalled.
None of that happens anymore in Achale’s hometown of Buea in southwest Cameroon, where anti-government militias roam those streets and where it has become dangerous to wear a Cameroon shirt.
‘They are afraid that fighters will kill them, beat them or burn their houses,’ Achale said of the fans, who have all but disappeared. He explained a Cameroon shirt might be interpreted by the militias as support for the government.
The militias are here after fighting broke out in western parts of Cameroon in 2017 between English-speaking separatists and soldiers from the French-language dominated government based in Yaounde.
More than 3,000 people have been killed in the fighting and more than 700,000 have fled their homes. Buea has been one of the hotbeds of the fighting, with gun battles on the streets and improvised explosive devices going off.
The African Cup visited Achale’s region, albeit briefly. Buea was a base for four teams for the early part of the tournament last month, and the nearby city of Limbe hosted group games and two knockout games in the last 16.
The tournament escaped any major incidents in Buea and Limbe, but there were reminders of what life has become here. The Mali squad abandoned a training session at a stadium in Buea and was rushed back to its hotel under armed guard as gunshots rang out in the neighborhood.
That gun battle between separatist rebels and government soldiers left two dead and five injured.
Buea resident Obasse Romeo, a former player for a local club, wondered why the African Cup was brought here.
‘They (the teams) train with so much fear,’ he said. ‘Imagine having just military people watching training sessions. The atmosphere is not there.’
Others have criticized what they call a deliberate attempt by the government to use the African Cup to conceal the rebellion here, to whitewash. Cameroon didn’t play any games in Limbe but local fans, fearful of the violence, were drawn out to games with the help of free match tickets and, according to some claims, an easing of strict COVID-19 restrictions to ensure the stadiums weren ‘t empty and kept up the host country’s image.
‘How can people be celebrating and playing when others are in hurt and in tears?’ asked Rev. Ludovic Lado, a Jesuit priest and activist who was against the African Cup being staged in Cameroon.
While Cameroon’s team gets set to play in the semifinals in Yaounde on Thursday and has a chance to make another final and claim a sixth African title, soccer in many western cities is being suffocated in an atmosphere of fear and violence.
Players for Buea-based club Mount Cameroon FC were recently attacked at a training session by unknown gunmen. Separatist fighters abducted and tortured members of the Bueau University’s soccer team. The owner of a club was killed by gunmen in Kumba city.
Coaches have been kidnapped and many local and semi-professional teams have withdrawn completely from competitions, a death knell for grassroots soccer.
Cameroon’s top league is also affected. When Yong Sports Academy plays home games in the city of Bamenda, heavily armed security personnel surround the field. At the end of games, visiting teams are rushed away by security forces, said local sports reporter Bakah Derick, with ‘no time to change their jerseys.’
That started, Derick said, when an armed group attacked visiting team Dragon FC of Yaounde.
The fighting has driven a wedge between western Cameroon and the rest of the country, but also between English-speaking and French-speaking. Yong Sports used to have many French-speaking players in its squad, comfortable in representing both heritages. Now, there’s just one.
“Those players are afraid of kidnappers and stray bullets,’ Yong Sports club official Wanchia Cynthia said.
Amid his nostalgia, Achale remembered most fondly how some of Cameroon’s star players used to come to the western cities after winning big titles. Achale recalled visits to the region by former player Pius N’Diefi, who was on Cameroon’s 2000 and 2002 African Cup-winning teams, and is from Kumba.
He would come ‘to encourage and inspire young people,’ Achale said.
He wonders if any of today’s stars will visit if Cameroon gets to Sunday’s final in Yaounde and wins this African Cup.
Maybe only the other part of the country will celebrate.
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