(Nairobi) – Army soldiers killed at least nine civilians in Cameroon’s Anglophone South-West region, on January 10, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. The dead included a woman and a child, and four civilians were injured. The soldiers also looted scores of homes and threatened residents.
The army spokesperson admitted that soldiers from the 21st Motorized Infantry Battalion (Bataillon d'Infanterie Motorisé or BIM) conducted an operation in the village, but did not acknowledge that troops killed and injured civilians.
“Killing civilians and looting their homes in the name of security are serious human rights crimes that fuel the escalating cycles of violence and abuse in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Cameroonian authorities should rein in abusive units and, with the assistance of the African Union and United Nations, establish a credible, impartial inquiry into the Mautu killings and prosecute those responsible.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 17 witnesses, including five relatives of victims, about the attack. This area has been severely affected by violence between government forces and armed groups seeking to separate the Anglophone North-West and South-West regions from Cameroon since late 2016. Separatist groups operate in the area around Mautu, and residents said they come to Mautu to buy food and collect water.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the international nongovernmental health organization, treated four people with gunshot wounds, including a child. Human Rights Watch obtained lists of the nine people killed from four sources and spoke to relatives and residents who either attended burials or took victims’ bodies to the Muyaka hospital mortuary. These details correspond with the information Human Rights Watch obtained independently from other witnesses.
Human Rights Watch shared its findings with Commander Atonfack Guemo, Cameroon’s army spokesman, in a January 22 email, requesting answers to specific questions. Atonfack Guemo replied on January 26, failing to address Human Rights Watch's questions, and instead gratuitously dismissed the evidence of unlawful killings as fabricated.
Witnesses said that over 50 soldiers, including members of the BIM, entered Mautu on foot at about 2 p.m. on January 10 and started shooting indiscriminately as people fled. The witnesses said that soldiers killed nine people, including a 50-year-old woman and a 6-year-old girl, and went house-to-house searching for separatist fighters and weapons, threatening residents and looting people’s belongings. Some of these accounts were also confirmed by international media outlets and Cameroonian human rights groups.
A 30-year-old woman, who witnessed the killing of her 28-year-old neighbor, said: “I saw how the soldiers went to his house, which is next to mine. They took him outside, kicked him, beat him with their guns and hands and then shot him several times. It was the most frightening experience of my life.”
Atonfack Guemo, Cameroon’s army spokesman, in a January 11 statement claimed that “terrorist groups” attacked soldiers from the 21st BIM while they were carrying out a “preventive raid” in Mautu on January 10, and that the soldiers responded by killing several “terrorists” and seizing their weapons. But witnesses and residents said that there was no confrontation between armed separatist fighters and soldiers, that at the time of the attack separatists were not in Mautu, and that soldiers deliberately killed civilians.
“The military just came to kill us,” a 32-year-old man from Mautu said. “There were no Amba [separatists] around at the time of the attack. The soldiers arrived and fired at villagers as they fled. Separatist fighters come at times to Mautu to get supplies, but they don’t live here, and we don’t shelter them. We are also afraid of them.”
Residents said the attack was a reprisal against the population the army accuses of sheltering and supporting separatist fighters. Five witnesses said that, during the attack, soldiers addressed scores of residents, including women, who had been rounded up in the center of the village, and threatened them. “They warned us that they would come back and kill more people if we did not show them where the amba [separatists] were,” a 60-year-old man said.
Witnesses reported that the village is now almost completely empty as people fled to the bush or nearby cities and villages, fearing renewed military attacks. “There is no one around,” a 36-year-old witness who remained in Mautu said. “Only a few of us stayed behind. The people are afraid that the army can come back.”
In his January 11 statement, the army spokesperson claimed that “terrorist leaders” fabricated “a jumble of gruesome images” in order to blame the Mautu killings on the army. However, Human Rights Watch obtained six videos and three photographs showing the aftermath of the attack and spoke to the man who made the videos and photographs. “Soldiers attacked us and shot at people indiscriminately,” he said. “I fled and hid into the nearby bush. When soldiers left, I came out and filmed those videos. This is real footage, showing real people massacred by those who pretend to protect us.”
Human Rights Watch matched the victims filmed with the descriptions of the victims known to have been killed, observed injuries consistent with those described by witnesses, and found no evidence of this visual material online before the date of the attack. The videos and photographs show the bodies of seven men, one woman, and a child as well as two injured women and one injured child. The videos were all captured in daylight, and pooled blood is visible in some, which, along with a lack of insect activity around those deceased, leads Human Rights Watch to believe that the videos were captured within hours of the attack.
This is not the first time that security forces attacked Mautu. Witnesses and residents said that soldiers carried out several operations in Mautu in 2020, as well as on January 1, 2021, when they surrounded the village, searched and looted homes, and harassed and beat people. “On January 1, at 6 a.m., lots of soldiers invaded our village,” a resident said. “They broke into my home and rounded me up with other men in the center of the village. They said they would take us all to the military camp unless we showed them where the amba [separatists] were. They beat some of us. They slapped me four times.”
The January 10 killings led to a public outcry and was widely condemned in Cameroon and outside.
Two prominent Cameroonian human rights groups, the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa and the Human Rights Defenders Network in Central Africa (Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale or REDHAC), denounced the attack and called for an independent inquiry. The UN special representative of the secretary-general for Central Africa and head of the regional office for Central Africa expressed concern about the killing of civilians and called for an independent investigation.
The UN Secretary General on January 15 urged the Cameroonian authorities to bring those responsible for the attack to justice, and reiterated his call on all parties to cease hostilities and engage in a political dialogue to end the crisis in the North-West and South-West regions. The French ambassador to Cameroon condemned the killings and demanded that “the facts of this unjustifiable crime be clarified.” The Canadian and British High Commissioners in Cameroon, as well as the United States embassy in Cameroon, also expressed their concern and called for those responsible to be held to account.
This is not the first time that Cameroonian authorities have denied that army troops killed civilians in the Anglophone regions, Human Rights Watch said. In February 2020, government forces killed 21 civilians, including 13 children and a pregnant woman, in Ngarbuh, North-West region, in a reprisal attack against the population accused of supporting separatist fighters. The government initially denied the army was responsible, but later established a commission of inquiry leading to the arrest of two soldiers and a gendarme. Their trial started on December 17.
“As Cameroon’s army tries to root out separatist fighters in the Anglophone regions, soldiers are instead targeting, abusing, and even killing civilians,” Sawyer said. “The authorities should send a strong message that such crimes will no longer be tolerated by investigating and prosecuting those most responsible for the Mautu massacre and by compensating victims and their families.”
For more details about the attack, please see below.
Violence in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions
Over the past four years, Cameroon’s Anglophone regions have been embroiled in a deadly cycle of violence that has claimed over 3,500 lives and forced more than 700,000 people from their homes.
The violence has escalated since December 2020 when Cameroon held its first regional elections. They were marred by opposition boycotts and intimidation, threats, and violent attacks by separatist fighters against voters, including the killing of one voter in the North-West region.
In January, media reported renewed attacks by separatist fighters on government forces and authorities, including an ambush on January 6 of the convoy of the senior divisional officer of Momo Division, in the North-West region. An improvised explosive device, planted by armed separatists on the road, killed five soldiers and one government official.
The crisis has been characterized by widespread human rights abuses by both government forces and armed separatists. Security forces have conducted abusive counterinsurgency operations resulting in the killings of civilians and destruction of hundreds of homes. They have also arbitrarily arrested and tortured suspected separatist fighters.
Armed separatists have also killed civilians and kidnapped hundreds of people. Since 2017, separatist leaders have enforced a boycott of education in the country’s two English-speaking regions, instructing their fighters to keep schools shut and depriving hundreds of thousands of children of their fundamental right to study. They have used education as a weapon of war, a means to achieve political gains.
In one of the latest and most gruesome attacks on education, on October 24, 2020, gunmen stormed a school in Kumba, South-West region, killing seven children and injuring 13 others.
Killings in Mautu
Human Rights Watch research indicates that government forces deliberately killed civilians in Mautu. Witnesses and residents said that soldiers entered the village on foot at around 2 p.m. on January 10, and then began shooting at people as they ran away in fear. The soldiers left the village at about 4:30 p.m. with at least four vehicles, which had arrived with additional soldiers after the attack began.
A 23-year-old woman who lost her 28-year-old brother in the attack said she fled to the nearby forest as the soldiers shot indiscriminately at frightened villagers:
I was fetching water outside when I heard a series of gunshots. People were screaming: “The military is coming!” I saw them coming and I immediately ran away toward the surrounding bush where I remained for four hours waiting for the shooting to stop. When I returned to Mautu, I found the body of my brother lying on the ground near our house. His body was covered in blood. He had been shot several times. I saw wounds on his stomach and arm. I took his body to the mortuary of the Muyuka hospital.
A 36-year-old man told Human Rights Watch that he escaped death by hiding in a pigsty near his house as soldiers shot at his 26-year-old brother and another man:
The military came and there was rampant shooting. I was with my brother and my tenant. We tried to run and take cover. My brother attempted to run behind the kitchen, but the military saw him, and shot him. My tenant was also shot at the same time. I don’t even know how and why I am still alive. I don’t know how I managed to hide. I crawled on the ground until I reached the place where we keep our pigs. I was breathing heavily. I was so afraid for my life.
From there, I could hear the soldiers saying in French: “Destroy everything! Destroy the house! Kill everyone!” They had seen me and were looking for me: “Where’s the third person?” I was so scared. I hid there like an animal for over an hour, helpless. Then, when the gunshots stopped, I came out and I saw my brother and my tenant in a pool of blood.”
A 32-year-old woman who lost her 50-year-old mother and 6-year-old daughter said she ran away as soon as she heard the first gunshots:
I fled to the bush along with many other people. Everyone was running for their lives as the military shot indiscriminately at us. While running, I got separated from my mother and one of my two children. I hid in the bush. When the shooting stopped and the military left, on my way back to Mautu, I discovered the bodies of my mother and my little girl. My mother had three gunshot wounds: one in the head, one in the arm, and one in the chest. I didn’t notice any gunshot wounds on the body of my child. I took their bodies to the mortuary of the Muyuka hospital that same evening.
Witnesses said that soldiers broke into homes in Mautu, searched and looted them, and forced people out.
A farmer said that soldiers threatened to arrest him if he did not give them money:
I was sitting on a chair inside my home. I heard the first gunshots. Two soldiers knocked on my door; I opened it. They searched everywhere in the house, every single corner. They were looking for amba [separatists] and weapons, they said. They found nothing. They said I should give them money: “If you don’t give us money, we will take you to Buea,” they said, implying they would arrest me. I had to give them 3,000 XAF [about US$5]; that was all I had.
A 46-year-old man who fled to the bush as soldiers attacked Mautu said he found later that his home had been broken into and his property stolen: “They took food, drinks, and money. They stole a bottle of whiskey, my chili, my shoes, and my wallet with 185,000 XAF [US$342].”
Another man, a 40-year-old farmer, also said that soldiers searched his home while he was hiding in the bush during the attack: “They broke the door and stole my phone and 20,000 XAF [US$37].”
Witnesses expressed feelings of despair and frustration. They blamed the soldiers for not distinguishing between ordinary people and separatist fighters.
A 60-year-old man who lost his son in the attack said:
I am upset and sad. I cannot explain the pain I feel for having lost my son. I buried him with my own hands, that night. His head had been scattered by bullets. I could not take him to the mortuary. This doesn’t feel right. This needs to stop, and those who commit these crimes need to be brought to justice. They [the soldiers] came to destroy us. They do not protect us. They believe everyone is an amba [separatist] fighter. They came and did not ask any questions; they just started shooting. We are just farmers here; we do not work with the amba. My son was not a fighter.
Witnesses described their thirst for justice and desire to see the abusers held to account, but they also spoke about the challenges of ensuring accountability in Cameroon.
A farmer whose 22-year-old brother was shot dead by the soldiers on January 10 in Mautu said: “Filing a complaint or asking for an autopsy? It seems like an impossible thing to me. I would like to do it, but I am too afraid of reprisals by the military, and also, I wouldn’t know where to start.”
At least three witnesses said that abuses by government forces fuel recruitment by separatist fighters.
“I am so upset that I decided I will now join the amba,” a 40-year-old man said. “I will go to the bush to join their struggle. I won’t die like an animal! I am frustrated! We are all frustrated. The soldiers come and kill my people.”