Buea — Doctors Without Borders, known by its French abbreviation MSF, welcomed Cameroon’s release of five members of its staff detained for a year on charges of helping separatists. MSF maintains it helps anyone who needs medical care and says it will only resume work in separatist areas with government security guarantees.
The group this week welcomed the military tribunal’s December 29 acquittal of the five workers – four of them Cameroonians and one Indian.
The military arrested two of the staff in December 2021 in Nguti, a southwestern town on the border with Nigeria, while they were transporting a patient with a gunshot wound to a hospital.
The military said the patient was a separatist and the next month arrested two more MSF staff members, accusing them of collaboration.
The French aid group said they abide by medical ethics of helping all in need but could not continue in the area under the threat of arrest.
In May, MSF suspended operations in Cameroon’s southwest.
Despite the dropped charges, MSF’s Operations Manager for Central Africa Sylvain Groulx said they cannot yet resume the needed aid work.
“We are obviously waiting to try to engage with the government so that we may resume our activity and we hope that they [the government] will be willing to sit down and discuss with us because these are lifesaving activities that we had to stop. It is very difficult for ministry of health ambulances to access certain areas. We were able to negotiate our access with all the actors and we were exceptionally allowed to do that, saving many lives,” said Groulx.
Paul Atanga Nji is Cameroon’s minister of territorial administration. While not specifically mentioning MSF, he told state broadcaster CRTV Tuesday that any aid groups helping rebels would be charged in court.
He said they will not allow aid groups that are believed to be separatist accomplices to operate in Cameroon. Nji said Cameroon’s military is working hard to bring order in the restive western regions. He said government hospitals have proven they have all that it takes to save the lives of people who need assistance.
Hospitals in Cameroon’s conflict areas have struggled to maintain services and staff, who say they have been victims of both military and separatists.
Nineteen-year-old University of Buea student Benedict Luma said MSF saved his uncle’s life in 2020.
“My uncle bled excessively when he was shot in the leg. Everyone was afraid he would die because there was no hospital around. Our neighbors advised us to call Doctors Without Borders on the phone, and in less than an hour, their ambulance came to save my uncle’s life,” he said.
Doctors Without Borders has provided medical aid in Cameroon to victims of Boko Haram Islamist militants along the northern border with Nigeria since 1984.
Until last May it also provided surgical care and malaria and COVID-19 treatment in Cameroon’s restive South-West region.
The aid group says it treated more than 1 million patients in Cameroon in 2020 alone.
Cameroon’s English-speaking separatists are fighting to break away from the French-speaking majority that it says treats them as second-class citizens.
Since the conflict broke out in 2017, the UN says more than 3,500 people have been killed and 750,000 displaced.