(New York) – The Islamist armed group Boko Haram used apparent child suicide bombers in an unlawful attack on a site for displaced people in the Far North region of Cameroon, Human Rights Watch said today.
The attack, carried out overnight between August 1 and 2, 2020 in the town of Nguetechewe, killed at least 17 civilians, including 5 children and 6 women, and wounded at least 16. There was no evident military objective in the vicinity.
“The Boko Haram’s nighttime suicide attack in Nguetechewe appears designed to maximize civilian deaths and injuries,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Using apparent children as suicide bombers to attack displaced people is a grossly repugnant war crime.”
From August 5 to 15, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 14 victims and witnesses to the Nguetechewe attack, as well as a local medical worker, 2 humanitarian workers, and 3 local activists. Human Rights Watch emailed its findings on August 12 to Cyrille Serge Atonfack Guemo, the Cameroonian army spokesperson, and requested responses to specific questions. In an August 18 email, Atonfack Guemo confirmed the attack, saying it was carried out by “terrorists,” and provided information on the security forces’ response.
Witnesses said that 20 to 30 fighters whom they recognized as Boko Haram because of the way they dressed and spoke entered Nguetechewe on foot late on August 1, evading detection from local gendarmes. They attacked community volunteer guards and members of a local vigilante group. The vigilante groups, comités de vigilance in French, were established in 2014 by government decree to assist security forces in fighting Boko Haram. The Boko Haram fighters then attacked the displacement site, shooting at fleeing residents and looting shelters.
Witnesses reported hearing two loud consecutive explosions as they fled. They said they believe the explosions were caused by two suicide bombers who infiltrated groups of fleeing civilians, then detonated explosive vests. The blasts killed 12 civilians.
Available information from witnesses and independent sources indicates that the suicide bombers were children, but Human Rights Watch could not confirm this finding.
“I was home with my family when we heard shooting and people screaming ‘Allahu Akbar!’” a 28-year-old site resident told Human Rights Watch. “We quickly understood it was a Boko Haram attack. We all went out and ran away. But the fighters shot at us. They were shooting randomly at all the people fleeing.”
The Nguetechewe site houses over 1,500 people who have been displaced in the past 4 years from across the Far North region due to violence by Boko Haram and counterinsurgency operations by the Cameroonian security forces.
At the time of the attack, between 16 and 20 gendarmes of the Groupement Polyvalent d’Intervention de la Gendarmerie Nationale (Polyvalent Intervention Group of the National Gendarmerie) were on duty in Nguetechewe, but none were stationed in the Guirbala neighborhood, where the displacement site is located.
"We are working day and night with little-to-no means or protection," said a 44-year-old vigilante group member. "We are scared and tired." Nguetechewe residents said they volunteered to help the vigilante groups protect the town from Boko Haram attacks but were neither trained nor equipped for such dangerous tasks.
Witnesses said that gendarmes intervened after the attack started but were too few to effectively confront the assailants. The witnesses said that military reinforcements from the 42nd Motorized Infantry Battalion (BIM) in Mozogo arrived only afterward, in the early morning of August 2. The soldiers took the injured to nearby medical facilities. Atonfack Guemo confirmed this information and added that soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) had been deployed to Nguetchewe from the nearby Mayo Moskota Base to prevent further attacks in the area.
Midjiyawa Bakary, the governor of Cameroon’s Far North region, told the media that following the attack, more security forces were deployed to Nguetechewe. Atonfack Guemo said that the gendarme detachment in Nguetchewe has been strengthened and that a “combat post” was being built in Mbaliouel Village to prevent Boko Haram fighters from entering the town.
The attack displaced over 1,500 people, both residents of Nguetchewe and those sheltered at the site. Many escaped to the surrounding bush. While many have returned, others continue to spend their nights in the forest, fearing new attacks. “We are scared, we live in fear, we panic at the smallest noise,” a 35-year-old woman said. “We are afraid to sleep at the displacement site because of the risks of new raids by Boko Haram.”
The attack in Nguetchewe was widely condemned, including by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
International humanitarian law applicable to the armed conflict with Boko Haram prohibits deliberate and indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian objects. Those who order or commit such attacks with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes. The recruitment and use in hostilities of children under age 15 is also a war crime. The recruitment and use in hostilities of children under 18 by non-state armed groups also violates international law.
“Attacking civilians, including those who have already been forced from their homes, is beyond reprehensible,” Allegrozzi said. “Securing Nguetchewe is a step in the right direction, but Cameroon’s government needs to adopt additional measures, including a more careful deployment of security forces to better protect civilians who remain at grave risk”.
Boko Haram in Cameroon
The armed group Boko Haram, which loosely translates as “Western education is forbidden,” is based in northeastern Nigeria and has spread to countries including Chad, Niger, and northern Cameroon. Since 2014, the group has wreaked havoc in Cameroon’s Far North region, carrying out attacks that are often indiscriminate or deliberately targeting civilians. The attacks have included suicide bombings in crowded civilian areas such as markets, mosques, churches, schools, displacement camps, and bus stations; kidnappings, including of women and children; and widespread looting and destruction of civilian property. UNICEF, human rights groups, and the media have documented the widespread forced recruitment of children and their use as suicide bombers by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad basin, including in Cameroon, since 2015.
The attack in Nguetchewe follows a major rise in violent incidents in the Far North Region since the beginning of the year, with almost daily killings, kidnappings, thefts, and destruction of property attributed to Boko Haram. Human Rights Watch monitoring of local and international media and reports by nongovernmental groups indicate that since January, the armed group has carried out over 200 attacks and raids, killing at least 146 civilians. Cameroon’s government reported that since January, 22 Boko Haram attacks occurred in the northern district of Mozogo, where Nguetchewe is located, alone.
The Boko Haram violence in Cameroon has forced over 322,000 people from their homes since 2014. Internally displaced people live in so-called spontaneous sites or with hosting families. A UN staff member told Human Rights Watch that there are 129 spontaneous displacement sites across the Far North region, many of which are not protected. Cameroon also hosts approximately 116,000 refugees who have fled Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria.
To address the threat posed by Boko Haram, the Cameroonian government has deployed thousands of security forces to the Far North. The government has also used over 14,000 vigilante group members in the Far North to provide intelligence to security forces, act as guides, and protect villages from attack. A separatist insurgency in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon and threats from Central African Republic-based rebel groups in the east exacerbate the difficulties in the Far North.
Boko Haram has repeatedly targeted Nguetechewe since the beginning of the conflict in 2014, including with suicide bombings. On January 18, 2016, a Boko Haram suicide attack on a mosque in Nguetchewe killed five people. On February 10, 2016, two Boko Haram female suicide bombers infiltrated a wake in Nguetchewe and blew themselves up, killing 6 people and injuring more than 30.
Accounts From Witnesses to the Nguetchewe Attack
Shooting at the Vigilantes’ Security Post
Before storming the displacement site after midnight on August 1, Boko Haram fighters attacked a security post in Ngeuetchewe’s Gokoro neighborhood, firing at vigilante group members and community volunteer guards on duty.
A 38-year-old vigilante group member said:
The assailants did not come from their usual way. They bypassed a vigilante post located at the outskirts of the city and attacked the post in Gokoro, controlled by both vigilantes and volunteers from the community. I was there, and they started shooting at us. So, we ran away to save our lives. We could not stop them, but we sounded the alarm and called the gendarmes.
Another vigilante group member, 44-years-old, said: “They came in large numbers. I could not count them because it was dark, and we all fled. But they shot one of us, a man named Gatama. They first struck him with a machete, then shot him, then threw him in a small river. We found his body the following morning.”
Attack on Displacement Site
People living at the Nguetchewe Displacement Site described the Boko Haram attack early on August 2. The fighters entered the site and began firing wildly at people who were desperately trying to flee.
A 70-year-old man, who has been living at the Nguetchewe Site for over three years after fleeing violence in his home village of Talassari, said:
I was sleeping. Suddenly, I heard gunfire. I immediately left the house and saw numerous Boko Haram fighters outside. They were screaming: “Allahu Akbar!” They were shooting everywhere. As I ran away for my life, they shot me in the stomach. I found myself on the ground, an inexplicable pain striking my body. I was bleeding profusely, and I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I was at the Adventist Hospital in Koza.
A 32-year-old woman who had been at Nguetchewe for the past year since leaving her home village of Mebori due to violence described the attack:
It was late at night when shooting woke me up. I was frightened. I just left my shelter and ran outside. Boko Haram fighters were firing all over the place, bullets were flying. While I was running, I was shot. A Boko Haram fighter shot me in my right hand. I did not stop running and I forced myself not to shout or cry. As I kept running through a millet field, I heard a very strong explosion. It was terrifying. I lay down and shortly after I heard a second explosion. I don’t remember much after. Gendarmes rescued me and the following morning the military took me to the hospital in Koza.
The site was then rocked by two explosions that proved to be suicide bomb attacks. A vigilante committee member, who had been living in the displacement site in Neguetchewe since 2017, said the first explosion injured him:
The explosion was big. I saw sparks like lightning in the sky and its sound was louder than a rocket. I touched my body and realized it was covered in blood. I don’t remember anything after that. I woke up at the Adventist Hospital in Koza. Medical staff were treating me. I suffered injuries to my right foot, abdomen, and head.
A 38-year-old resident of Nguetchewe said: “I was just few meters away from the first explosion. I don’t know how I am still alive. The first explosion killed eight people. The second one, less than three minutes after, killed four people. I counted the bodies and helped rescue the injured.”
A 28-year-old man said that he lost two family members in the first explosion:
I heard the shooting and ran away. While I was running in the middle of a millet field, I heard a very strong explosion. I was lucky because I was only slightly injured. But my wife and my 15-month-old daughter were more seriously injured in the head and in the hands, respectively. I also lost two female cousins, one 23 and the other 12.
The morning following the attack, soldiers from the 42nd BIM took the man, his wife, and daughter to the Maroua Regional Hospital.
A 52-year-old farmer said that he lost four family members in the attack:
I live in Mozogo and as soon as I was informed about the attack in the early morning of August 2, I rushed to Nguetchewe because I have family there. I was devastated to learn that my family members had been killed. I identified the bodies of my stepmother, my sister-in-law, and one of her two twin babies and of another child. The other twin was still alive. She was taken to the hospital but died on August 9 of her injuries.
The farmer said that while returning on his motorcycle to Mozogo, seven kilometers from Nguetchewe, Boko Haram fighters shot him in the back.
I saw two Boko Haram fighters in front of me. I slowed down. I looked back. I saw more behind me. There was no way I could turn around. So, I decided to speed up and as I did, they shot me in the back. I managed to continue until Mozogo despite the pain and the fact that I was bleeding. Once I arrived in Mozogo, I was taken to the hospital. I was later transferred to Mokolo Hospital where I spent two days and finally to the Maroua Regional Hospital. The doctor said I was lucky because the bullet did not pierce my lungs.
Three Nguetchewe residents along with three other independent sources said they believe the two suicide bombers were children – a girl and a boy – from outside the displacement site. The residents said that when they and the victim’s family members identified the bodies of those killed, they recognized everyone except a boy and a girl with heads missing whom they said were neither from Nguetchewe nor from the displacement site.
The vigilante committee member and a 32-year-old man said that they saw the alleged girl suicide bomber before she detonated her explosive vest. The 32-year-old man said:
I was fleeing with a group of people and saw a girl on the ground complaining of pain. We approached her. We thought she had been injured. We asked her to stand up and run with us, but she refused. So, we kept running and seconds after we heard the first loud explosion. We believe she was the suicide bomber. She could have been 14 years old or so.
During and after the explosions, Boko Haram fighters entered shelters at the displacement site and looted food and livestock. A 40-year-old resident said:
They broke into dozens of shelters and took everything they could find. They looted up to 10 sheep and goats, clothes, and food. People were already destitute before the attack. Many of them had fled their hometowns and villages leaving everything behind due to the violence. Now they have just been left with nothing.
Inadequate Security at Nguetchewe Displacement Site
Residents and others said there weren’t enough government security forces in Nguetchewe and at the displacement site at the time of the attack.
A 27-year-old displaced man said:
The displacement site was left almost unguarded. There are some 10 volunteers and members of the vigilante committee on duty near the site. But there was no presence of the security forces. This recent attack clearly showed that civilians cannot be left to fend off heavily armed Boko Haram fighters. We welcome the deployment of more gendarmes in Nguetchewe [since the attack] and hope they will stay.
A 21-year-old electrician and Nguetchewe resident said:
We need more security forces in Nguetchewe. We need to feel safe. Now we are scared. Volunteers and vigilantes cannot ensure our security alone. They are not armed and the best they can do is to launch the alert if they don’t get killed. They need to be supported by the state forces.
A local activist said:
There were some 16 gendarmes in Nguetchewe when the attack took place. This was totally insufficient to protect the people from Boko Haram, whose fighters are always heavily armed and use brutal strategies to attack civilians. Boko Haram knows the area and the territory well. They know where to enter and escape. They use suicide bombers, and often they are children or women, so they can go unnoticed. If the authorities do not deploy more security forces in our area, they will be failing in their fundamental duty to protect their people. They should prevent Boko Haram from targeting civilians again and protect the displaces communities from further attacks.