Dozens of Anglophone militias have sprung up over the past year despite a lack of weaponry
Cameroon rebels outgunned in increasingly violent separatist campaign
Like many young men in Cameroon, "Robert" dreamed of escaping poverty through a career in football. Raised in the Anglophone town of Buea, he was a hopeful for local side Mount Cameroon FC, whose players have helped build the country's reputation as one of Africa's top soccer nations.
Last year, when the Francophone government crushed pro-Anglophone protests in Buea, he hung up his football boots and joined the Red Dragons, a separatist militia fighting the security forces. They were, he admits, a team of raw amateurs taking on seasoned professionals.
"When I first signed up to fight, they didn't have enough guns to go around, so some of us had to make do with machetes instead," Robert, 28, told The National. "But even the guns we had were home-made Dane Guns [single-shot muskets introduced into West Africa by Danish colonial traders]. They only fire a single shot at a time, and often they jam. Going into battle against the army was very scary."
To even up the odds, the Red Dragons commanders put their trust in witchcraft, issuing their men with charm pouches full of secret herbs. They told them to abstain from sex before battle, and to avoid wearing metal items like zips or studs in their clothes or shoes. Both practices were said to make the fighters bulletproof. Neither worked.
"The first time we went into battle, I lost seven of my comrades," said Robert, who fled Cameroon last month to a refugee camp in neighbouring Nigeria. "Nearly every time we went into battle, the Cameroon army defeated us, because they had superior weapons."
Along with groups like the Tigers of Ambazonia, the Southern Cameroon Defence Forces and the Ambazonia Restoration Army, the Red Dragons are among dozens of militias now operating in Anglophone regions. They began springing up last autumn, following a particularly bloody period in September when 40 demonstrators were killed by security forces in just three weeks.
Although most are still armed with little more than home-made firearms and basic hunting rifles, some have acquired military-grade weapons taken from government soldiers.
As with most insurgent groups, attitudes towards them within their host community vary. Some Anglophones see them as liberation saviours. Others say they are already being hijacked by criminal elements, and are simply driving the conflict deeper into civil war.
Certainly, those who disagree with the groups' separatist agenda do so at their peril. In the past two years, Anglophone regions have carried out weekly "Ghost Town" days — mass general strikes where entire towns down tools, and schools stay empty. The strikes enjoy popular support, but are also enforced by the militias. Teachers who have tried to keep their schools open for the sake of their pupils' education have been threatened and sometimes kidnapped.
The militias have also acquired their own reputation for brutality, with footage emerging last month of one group beheading a Cameroonian soldier. Ayaba Cho Lucas, the commander-in-chief of the Ambazonia Defence Force, the largest rebel group, told The National that the "killing and torture of captured soldiers was not allowed". But Robert claimed it was the only way the guerrillas could level the battlefield.
"If we try to take on the army in straight combat, we usually lose, so these days we normally try to ambush them when there's just a few of them on their own," he said.
"If we catch them, we inflict pain on them to get them to tell us which of our villages they plan to attack next. Sometimes we will cut off their fingers, sometimes more. Most of the times we end up killing them."
Asked if such tactics might sully the rebels' calls for support from the wider world, he shrugged. "This is war," he said. "Our cry is that Britain should help, as our former colonial power. But they haven't."
In a region already awash with arms from the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi's Libya, the rebels may soon acquire their own firepower on the black market.
Yet even without it, the force of few thousand strong is one to be reckoned with. While they may never defeat the French-trained Cameroon army in conventional battle, they are fast rendering the region ungovernable. Two weeks ago, organisers of soccer's Africa Cup — which Cameroon is due to host next year, as the current champions — said the tournament might have to be held outside the country because of the sliding security situation.
For now, though, Robert's days as a freedom fighter are over. While serving in the Red Dragons he spent eight months living rough in the bush, unable to go into towns or cities for fear of attracting the attention of the security forces. That also meant injured comrades had to rely on bush clinics run by traditional healers.
He was forced to flee to Nigeria after a comrade accidentally shouted his name during battle, giving his identity away to the Cameroonian security forces. He has no immediate plans to go back.
"I'd like to return to the fight for a free Ambazonia, but I don't want to rely on charms any more. If someone can offer proper military training, I will gladly join them."