Killings, kidnappings, stripping girls naked part of Cameroon separatist abuses, HRW says

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Killing and attacking civilians, attacking education facilities, kidnapping workers, stripping schoolgirls naked and beating them are just a few of the abuses Cameroonian separatists have carried out on the civilian population in the Anglophone regions, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.

“Armed separatist groups are kidnapping, terrorizing, and killing civilians across the English-speaking regions with no apparent fear of being held to account by their own leaders or Cameroonian law enforcement,” says Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior central Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) spoke with victims, journalists, human rights organizations and obtained the statement of one separatist group after asking three for their comments.

Killings against civilians commonplace

Between January and May 2022, at least seven civilians were killed by separatists. The body of retired teacher Lukong Francis was found on 23 May on the road between Mantum and Jakiri, in the North-West region, with signs of torture.

HRW confirmed with his former colleagues that he had participated in the 20 May public celebrations for Cameroon’s Unity Day.

Less than a month before, on 28 April, separatists attacked a taxi and bus stand at one in the morning, killing three people - a lawyer, a driver and a porter. They accused workers of working during one of their “ghost towns”, when people are not supposed to go out on the street.

“I saw the body of my brother at the mortuary,” the brother of driver who was killed told HRW. “He had three gunshot wounds. He was shot from behind and the bullets came out of his chest,” he added.

Another taxi driver was killed along with his passenger on 12 January by separatists who had called for people to stay home because the Africa Cup of Nations games was being played in Cameroon at the time.

Healthcare workers remain in the crossfire in Anglophone Cameroon as well. After stopping two vehicles from the Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services (CBCHS) at a checkpoint in North-West region, they shot at the vehicle.

Nurse Jenette Sweyah, 46, was hit in the head by a bullet and killed, and a nurse and doctor were also injured. CBCHS is a nonprofit medical organization that provides health care to people in need.

Educational facilities and students

At the beginning of the Anglophone Crisis in 2016, professionals such as schoolteachers peacefully protested and demonstrated against the perceived marginalization by the majority French-speaking central government.

Protests erupted into violence after the government responded with a military crackdown.

Separatists then armed themselves in a crisis where, six years on, innocent civilians in the two regions have been caught in the crossfire, and subject to repeated attacks by armed Anglophone rebels.

Anglophone armed groups have repeatedly hit schools, seminaries, and universities in the five months of this year, according to the report.

On 5 April, Bamenda University in Bambili, North-West region, was attacked by separatists, who shot into the air. In the panicked stampede that ensued, five people were injured. The university was attacked for not observing the lockdown stay-at-home order that the separatist had declared across the area.

This was not the first time the university was attacked - separatists kidnapped nine students from their dormitories on 20 May, 2020 beating them. They were released five days later when a ransom was paid.

A group of 11 students including four girls aged 14 to 18, were beaten, threatened, and humiliated on their way to Bokova high school in Buea, South-West region. In a video confirmed by the students, all 11 boys and girls were forced to strip naked by the 15 separatists.

“They ordered us to remove our school uniforms. A we were all naked, they beat us, kicked us, and threatened to kill us,” a 16-year-old female student who said she was “terrified”, told HRW.

The separatists told them schools should be shut down, and shot one boy in the leg at close range.

A school official who spoke to HRW said that the students did not come to school for a week they were so traumatized.

Cameroon Army Spokesperson Cyrille Atonfack Gueno blamed separatist fighters for the attack.

A video emerged two days after the violence where the deputy defense chief of Ambazonia Defence Forces congratulated the groupc - alled the Mountain Lions - but said the children should not have been stripped.

“Leaders of separatist groups should immediately instruct their fighters to stop abusing civilians and hand over abusive fighters for prosecution,” says Allegrozzi.

Another tactic involves burning schools or school dormitories to make a point. One government primary school in Molyko, Buea, in the south west region, was burnt down on 7 February after school officials received threats from separatists. On 5 April, they burnt another classroom.

In the early hours of 11 February, separatist fighters set fire to three dormitories of Queen of the Rosary College, an all-girls boarding school in Okoyong, South West region, where 120 girls were asleep.

Videos that were confirmed by school staff show girls screaming as fighters threaten students not to march on National Youth Day in Cameroon, later that morning.

“We heard screaming and saw smoke and flames. Girls ran away as arsonists burned down their beds and personal belongings. Some students sustained light injuries,” according to a school official.

This arson attack was condemned internationally and within Cameroon. One separatist group acknowledged responsibility. Dabney Yermina, the vice-resident of Sako, said his group “will take steps to disarm rogue gangs operating within Ambazonia,” according to a statement.

Also in the South-West, 33 seminary students were kidnapped in Bachuo-Ntai. Catholic officials said that the men were released the next day, but no indication was made as to whether a ransom was paid or not.

Five school teachers were kidnapped from a government high school in Weh, in the North-West region, on 19 January, and two students were injured when seven separatist fighters stormed a classroom.

One of the kidnapped teachers spoke to HRW. She recognized some of the fighters as her former students. They told the teachers the reason why they were kidnapped was because they were not complying with a school boycott, nor were they contributing financially to the struggle.

“They forced us out at gunpoint,” said the teacher.

“We had to walk for an entire day in the bush until we reached their camp,” she said, adding that an elderly teacher and another were exhausted.

“The fighters threatened them with death if they didn’t continue,” she added.

The students had panicked and ran off when they stormed the classroom, and they tried to kidnap a student who spoke to HRW.

“I resisted, so one of the fighters cut off a finger with a machete. I screamed in pain. He let me go. I went to the hospital where I underwent surgery, but my finger was finally amputated,” said the student.

The teachers were released on 24 January after a ransom was paid.

According to witnesses, there were no security forces near the school at the time of the attack, even though there is a military base two kilometres from the school. They said that the soldiers and gendarmes there have no means of transportation, so have difficulty patrolling the area.

“Cameroon’s regional and international partners should intensify calls on the Cameroonian government for accountability, and better protection of civilians, says HRW’s Allegrozzi.

“They should also impose targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes, on separatist leaders who bear responsibility for committing abuses,” she adds.

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