(New York) - Gunmen stormed a private school in Cameroon’s Anglophone South-West region on October 24, 2020, killing 7 children and injuring at least 13 others. Cameroonian authorities, with technical support and forensics expertise from the United Nations and African Union, should urgently protect the site, preserve evidence, carry out a credible, effective investigation, and ensure that those responsible for the attack are held to account.
No one claimed responsibility for the killings, but the government has accused armed separatists who have called for a boycott of education in the Anglophone regions since 2017. The vice president of the Ambazonia Interim Government, one of the main separatist groups, said in a statement on October 25 that Cameroonian soldiers carried out the attack. On the day of the attack, Cameroon’s communications minister announced an investigation. Four days later, the minister said that security forces had “neutralized” a separatist fighter who was allegedly among those responsible.
“This massacre is a grim reminder of the horrific toll that the crisis in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions has had on children and their education,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities should ensure that the promised investigation is independent, effective, and impartial and that those responsible for this brazen attack on schoolchildren are brought to justice.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone five relatives of victims, two medical workers who treated the wounded, four local journalists who reported on the massacre, two teachers working in Kumba, where the attack took place, and ten residents of Kumba who rushed to the school to help evacuate the injured. Human Rights Watch reviewed 48 photographs and video footage showing the bodies and the aftermath of the attack and reviewed multiple media articles and statements by government officials and separatist leaders.
At least nine gunmen arrived on motorbike at Mother Francisca International Bilingual Academy in Kumba’s Fiango neighborhood at about 11 a.m. on October 24. They broke into a second-floor classroom and opened fire on students. They continued shooting as frightened children ran for their lives, jumping from the staircase and screaming.
“I had woken up early that Saturday to go to the farm,” a father who lost his 11-year-old daughter told Human Rights Watch. “My daughter told me, ‘Goodbye, Pa,’ and that’s the last time I saw her alive. When I was informed about the shooting, I ran to the school, and there I saw the body of my little girl on the ground, her head blown off. I was in shock.”
The attack occurred in a populated area and in broad daylight. Residents said that government security forces were not nearby at the time. In his October 24 statement, the communications minister said that the school “only launched its activities at the start of the 2020/2021 school year, without the knowledge of the competent administrative authorities and could not benefit from the same security measures enjoyed by other schools.”
However, Kumba residents and journalists said that the school had been open for several years and that only government schools in Kumba, not private schools, have security forces outside. “We don’t want soldiers in the classrooms because the neutrality of schools should be preserved, but we deserve better protection,” said a teacher working in a private primary school in Kumba.
The communications minister said that, following the attack, “Special units of the Cameroonian armed forces have undertaken to secure the town of Kumba.”
Many relatives of victims and residents said they are too afraid of renewed attacks to send their children back to school. “Who would dare to send their kids to school now? I wouldn’t,” a mother who lives in Fiango neighborhood said. “I prefer to keep them at home doing nothing, rather than send them to school where they can be slaughtered.”
In the event of such loss of life, ensuring an effective investigation is an essential element of the government’s human rights obligations, not only to provide justice for the victims but to deter future attacks and reinforce protection of the right to life and to education, Human Rights Watch said. An effective investigation should include at a minimum collecting and preserving forensic evidence from the crime scene and victims, taking statements from all relevant witnesses, and identifying any visual documentation such as photos and video footage of the attack and its aftermath.
Cameroon should approach the African Union and United Nations as necessary for technical support and expertise to ensure an effective investigation. The authorities should also desist from making unfounded accusations and speculation with respect to local or community complicity in the attack.
In an October 24 news conference, Chamberlin Ntou'ou Ndong, the government’s senior divisional officer for the Meme division, an administrative area that includes Kumba, accused the local population of complicity with the alleged attackers for having “stood by” without reporting the presence of gunmen to the security forces. The South-West region governor visited Kumba on October 29 and said to women there, “Who are the killers? ... The killers are your brothers … your children!” But as one Kumba resident said, “It’s not our fault that the attack happened. It’s unjust to blame the community. They [authorities] just failed us.”
On the day of the attack, Ntou'ou Ndong ordered the Kumba police to detain the owner of the school and two of its teachers at the Kumba police station to “ensure their safety,” citing potential risks of reprisals by the community. They remain in detention. Human Rights Watch could not confirm whether they have been charged with any offense. But victims’ family members and Kumba residents said it was unlikely that anyone would want to harm them. “It’s naive to say that this is a form of protective detention as no one blames them for what happened,” one resident said.
Three journalists who covered the attack and Kumba residents who gathered at the school in the aftermath of the killings said that the crime scene was easily accessible both on October 24 and 25, raising concerns that forensic evidence might have been lost. “It wasn’t sealed off,” a journalist said. “I entered the classroom where the shooting took place three or four times on October 25. No one stopped me, and there were no security forces around.”
Since 2017, armed separatist groups have enforced a boycott of education in the Anglophone regions, trying to pressure the government to support their call for independence of Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. Separatist fighters have attacked schools, kidnapped hundreds of students, and assaulted students and teachers for failing to comply with their demands to keep schools closed. They have used schools as bases, torturing and holding people hostage in and near them.
Government forces have also been implicated in at least one arson attack at a school, and have committed other serious human rights violations, including against children. On February 14, soldiers massacred 21 people, including 13 children, in Ngarbuh village, North-West region, in a reprisal attack aimed at punishing the population accused of harboring separatist fighters.
Attacks on schools, students, and teachers in the Anglophone regions have had a devastating impact on education. According to the United Nations, 81 percent of children were out of school across the North-West and South-West regions during the 2019 to 2020 academic year.
The attack in Kumba prompted a national and international outcry. President Paul Biya declared October 31 a day of national mourning. The United Nations, the African Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, and Pope Francis all condemned the killings. The spokesperson of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that killing children and attacks on educational facilities constitute serious violations of international law and that those responsible must be held accountable. She urged the Cameroonian authorities “to ensure independent and impartial investigations and prosecution of all serious violations and abuses” in the Anglophone regions.
In September 2018, Cameroon announced its endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment to protect education in times of conflict and violence. In June, in response to the gravity and number of attacks on schools, the killing and maiming of children, and the recruitment and use of children, the UN Secretary-General added Cameroon as a situation of concern for the UN’s monitoring and reporting mechanism on grave violations against children during armed conflict.
“What happened in Kumba is the latest in a series of shocking attacks on children and education in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon,” Sawyer said. “The government needs to do more to ensure that children can study safely. The authorities should ensure that those responsible for the Kumba massacre are held to account, deter further attacks, and secure children’s fundamental right to education.”