The United Nations estimates that since 2017, about 1,800 people have been killed in Cameroon, another 53,000 have been displaced and 1.3 million are in need. A Hutchinson man wants to do something about it.
“They are going to villages and killing,” Efi Tembon said. “They go in and raze whole villages.”
Area residents may recognize Tembon from around Hutchinson over the past two years, or from his time speaking at local churches. A little more than 10 years ago he coached soccer for the Glencoe Stars before going on to coach for Glencoe-Silver Lake while studying at Crown College in St. Bonifacius.
In 2016, Tembon was working as a missionary in his home country of Cameroon when protests broke out in the northwest and southwest regions of the bilingual country. The linguistic split by region is due to the nation’s colonial history. Following World War I, the German colony of Kamerun was split into French and English mandates. The 2016 protests were in response to French-speaking teachers being posted to English-speaking regions, as well as French-speaking magistrates, which locals feared would enforce a legal code more steeped in French history.
The Cameroon government cracked down on protesters, which led to widespread violence. The escalation led more of the public to join in on protests, and to start “ghost towns” in which locals refused to work and provide services.
“Helicopters were used by the government to start killing peaceful protesters,” Tembon said.
He said the internet was shut down to stop videos of violent crackdowns from being distributed online, and young people who matched the description of protesters were killed. By 2017, armed groups had formed to oppose the government. In reaction to the killing of soldiers, the military response grew. Accusations of human rights abuses have been leveled against all sides.
Tembon said people he worked with were among those burned to death by the government. Another was shot and killed, causing the man’s wife to flee to the forest and hide with her twin babies.
Ambushes against soldiers are answered with more violence.
In a report, Tembon has compiled photos of families hiding in the forest without shelter, torture and beheading victims, groups and individuals burned alive and other atrocities the government is accused of.
As the two sides fail to open a dialogue, the country also contends with cross-border raids and insurgency from Boko Haram, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council. Boko Haram is a jihadist terrorist organization.
“The challenge we have is the U.S. provided weapons to fight against Boko Haram, but they turned against local people,” Tembon said.
In June last year, Tembon — now a U.S. citizen — testified before the U.S. Congress with Amnesty International.
“I needed to find a way to make the world know about what was happening,” Tembon said.
He reached out through friends in the State Department and wrote to a friend who connected him with Congress.
At the time of Tembon’s testimony, he was serving as executive director of the Cameroon Association for Bible Translation and Literacy. He says CABTA fired him at the prompting of the Cameroon government in an effort to discredit him.
“They put my face in the paper saying I’m a rebel leader,” Tembon said. “They went to Facebook and took a picture I had with the McLeod County Sheriff and said these were the type of people I was taking (to Cameron) to help destabilize the country.”
Because of his testimony, Tembon is certain he cannot return home. His brothers and mother have left the country, and other family members moved to locations they hope will be safer. He says soldiers were stationed outside of his house, and that when his brother visited it was raided.
“They thought it was me,” Tembon said. “Thank God he entered and left. They didn’t notice he had left. ... If I go back they’ll put a bullet in my head. I know that.”
Earlier this year, the United States cut military aid to Cameroon. Tembon now works with the Oasis Network for Community Transformation, which focuses on Bible translation and empowering people to lead changes in their community. He is also an associate director for Wycliffe Associates, which has him traveling to 11 African countries as a missionary. Over the years, quite a few local churches have supported his ministry, Tembon said.
On Friday, Tembon traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawmakers and national leaders about Cameroon. He also plans to meet with Canadian and United Kingdom officials and diplomats.
“I am pushing for international intervention,” Tembon said. “It can be stopped now before it gets completely out of control.”
To help push for political attention, he has created a petition that included 120 signatures from Hutchinson earlier this week. Tembon can be reached at email@example.com.
He hopes international mediation will be able to solve the conflict and bring those committing crimes to justice. He has sent a report to the International Criminal Court and has been told the report was received. He will be told if an investigation is undertaken.
“It’s all a lot of politics,” Tembon said.