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At a New Jersey church, voices of concern for a Cameroon in crisis

A South Jersey church shares the pain of congregation members from Cameroon, where a conflict born of colonialism has led to recent bloodshed.

About 200 Cameroonians have made new lives for themselves in South Jersey, and many in the community have been made welcome at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church in Laurel Springs.
About 200 Cameroonians have made new lives for themselves in South Jersey, and many in the community have been made welcome at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church in Laurel Springs.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO

Silva Munuza was describing the deadly conflict back home in Cameroon to Cliff Jones, his pastor in Laurel Springs.

A 38-year-old accountant who lives in Clementon and has a young daughter, Munuza talked about the brutality of the security forces, the burning of villages, and of the dead. And then his voice broke.

"Silva couldn't keep on speaking," Jones recalled. "He knows people who have been killed."

The effect on the pastor was profound.

"When I saw a brother in Christ break down four times in the space of five minutes,"  he said,  "I realized that we need to do something."

That's why St. Paul's Presbyterian, a cozy church on a pretty street in small-town Camden County, is praying for Cameroon, a West African nation where six complicated decades of tension between the English-speaking minority and the French-speaking majority threaten to erupt into civil war.

The pastor, Munuza, and others in the church hope to educate the congregation and the public about the situation in that riven, faraway land, and are exploring other ways to help. A good number of the 200 people in the English-speaking Cameroonian community that has taken root in South Jersey during the last 20 years are Presbyterian, and belong to St. Paul's.

I met Munuza there during services on a recent Sunday, and later sat down with him and five other Cameroonians in Fellowship Hall at the church.

Until I started working on this column, pretty much all I'd known about Cameroon was that the Sixers' amazing Joel Embiid is from there.  I've since been reading news stories online and watching YouTube clips about the turmoil, and I've seen some of the awful images — a man on his knees being beaten, a charred body in a ruined, roofless house, entire villages reduced to cinders — that have been widely disseminated on social media. I've also visited the website of the self-described "interim government" of an envisioned English-speaking, independent Cameroonian state to be called the Federal Republic of Ambazonia.

But nothing prepared me for the conversation around the table.

"My brother died on the spot, and a neighbor who was like a father to me had just left his home and also was killed," said Ernest Awa, 40, a health-care worker who lives in Lindenwold. "I lost those two people," he said softly.

Awa was describing the events of Sept. 1 in Pinyin, a village in the northwestern portion of the English-speaking part of the country, where many of the Cameroonians in South Jersey have family. Witnesses posted videos charging security forces the government claims are seeking to quell a separatist rebellion with shooting civilians at will.

"My cousin was killed the same day," Munuza said. "He had special needs, and when everybody was running, he didn't know what was happening. He was standing in front of his house, and they shot him."

At the table, a young Cameroonian woman who lives in Camden County and asked not to be identified because she feared for her family's safety said she hasn't been able to reach her father back home for the last two weeks. He's in his 70s and escaped an attack near Pinyin by hiding in the wilderness, she said.

"I don't know when I will be able to go back there," said Valerie Mouthchia, 45, a project manager who lives in Clementon. She has become an American citizen and said the U.S. should not support the government in Cameroon, which she said is responsible for human rights violations there.

The people around the table described the conflict as a colonial legacy made worse by the authoritarian rule of longtime francophone President Paul Biya. The results of a contentious Oct. 7 presidential election are expected to be made public Oct. 22, with some media in the country predicting Biya will win.

Despite the rising numbers of casualties, displaced persons, and refugees — thousands of Cameroonians have fled across the border into Nigeria — Americans generally know little about Cameroon or its escalating crisis.

Nevertheless, "Americans can become more aware," Munuza said. "They can call their representatives. They can tweet. They can call for an end to the genocide."

I asked the pastor of St. Paul's how even a faith-filled, 360-member-strong congregation could realistically expect to have an impact on a complicated human tragedy so far away.

"For us, prayer is important," Jones said. "Knowing people who are going through this, whose immediate family members have been killed, brings this to a much more personal level. We need to do something, and not just in words."