IKOM, Nigeria — In a decade that has seen countless horrific images of war, never has one shown soldiers from a military that benefits from American support carry out such a heartless and heart-rending act.
A video that went viral last month showed men identified as troops from the U.S.-backed army of Cameroon, but accompanied by other men not in uniform, lead two women down a dirt road. One woman has an infant, perhaps a year old, tied to her back in a traditional African wrap and clinging to her sides. The other woman leads a little girl by the hand who could not be older than six.
As they walk across the dusty scrubland, one soldier repeatedly slaps the face of the woman who clutches the hand of the little girl. “You are BH [referring to Boko Haram], you are going to die,” he says. One of the men says what’s happening was caused by the family of the women.
The four captives are walked off to the side of the road. The younger woman is blindfolded. The other woman, seated on the ground, bows her head. “Yes, come here, little girl,” one of the men says to the child, pulling her shirt up and wrapping it around her face so she cannot see. The baby on the woman’s back is still looking around. And then the soldiers open fire with their assault rifles.
It is all filmed with remarkable calm, even the repeated shots to the head of the woman with the infant, and the infant as well, and then what appears to be a coup de grace for the little girl. (The video can be watched here, but be warned, it is not something that can be unseen.)
The government of Cameroon initially denied that members of its armed forces had carried out this extrajudicial murder in the region where Boko Haram jihadists operate—“fake news,” was the official proclamation—but after an international outcry the government changed its tune. Cameroon government spokesman Tchiroma Bakary said President Paul Biya had ordered an investigation.
“As we speak, four soldiers who are suspected to have carried out the executions have been arrested,” an army officer in the far north region which borders northeast Nigeria told The Daily Beast on background. “We are waiting to find out the next line of action.”
Perhaps. But this hideous incident caught on video is just one of a growing number of cases of Cameroonian soldiers brutally targeting women and children. This is happening in the far north, where Boko Haram fighters have in the last four years mounted suicide attacks and kidnappings, but also in northwestern and southwestern Cameroon, where government forces have been battling English-speaking separatists who are clamoring for independence from the mostly French-speaking nation.
In most instances, these killings go unreported even in the local press, which has suffered from a series of repressive measures by the government.
In 2015 and 2016, U.S. military assistance to Cameroon increased dramatically as part of a broader effort to combat Boko Haram terrorists who operate mainly in the Lake Chad basin where the borders of Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Niger converge. Security assistance has dropped off dramatically in the last two years, from $80 million down to about $5 million. But in 2015 alone some 2,000 of the 14,000 soldiers in Cameroon’s military received American training, according to SecurityAssistance.org, which tracks such expenditures worldwide.
In the meantime, much of the Cameroon military attention has been refocused on the western, Anglophone parts of the country along the long Nigerian border, and that is where most of today’s atrocities appear to be taking place.
The conflict erupted in 2016 when the government repressed peaceful protests by English speakers against perceived marginalization. It turned into a full blown war when separatists declared western Cameroon an independent nation last October. The deaths of more than 100 civilians have been documented, along with dozens of soldiers killed by the rebels. More than 180,000 mostly Anglophone Cameroonians have been displaced (PDF) during the crisis, including at least 21,000 refugees registered in camps in the southern Nigeria state of Cross River.
“The soldiers are targeting wives and children of men they suspect belong to the separatist movement,” Bernard Nyong, who fled the conflict in Akwaya community in southwest Cameroon to the Nigerian border town of Ikom in Cross River state, told The Daily Beast. “Killing a member of your family is the punishment you get for asking for independence from Cameroon.”
Back in Cameroon, Nyong, who owned an auto mechanic workshop, openly expressed his support for the so-called Republic of Ambazonia, the country the separatists are hoping to create. He often attended meetings with other supporters of the cause where they usually planned pro-independence marches. One evening, he returned home from his workshop to find his house burned down and his wife murdered.
“I was not the only victim of this atrocity,” he said. “I have a friend whose wife and daughter were killed on that same day.”
In another incident outside Akwaya, 39-year-old Vincent Paul watched from nearby bush as soldiers stormed his home and fired shots at his wife and two children, whom they said spied for the separatists.
“I was in the bush trying to set a trap to catch animals when the soldiers arrived,” Paul told The Daily Beast. “I could hear them yell at my wife and kids whom they called ‘traitors’ before killing them.”
Attacks on the most vulnerable Anglophone regions have been rampant this year. Tales of government forces burning down homes and arbitrarily killing civilians, especially women and children, keep being posted on social media.
“On Tuesday, April 3, the Cameroonian army attacked and burned several houses in Mungo Vendeur, a small village located about 40 km from Nguti to Koupé-Manengouba (South-West),” Agbor Bala Nkongho, director of the NGO, Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, posted on his Facebook page. “Ms Egbe Maria Ndonge [referring to a woman from the village] was burned to death in her house while she slept.”
Human Rights Watch in a report released over a week ago said Cameroonian forces burned down several hundred homes in 20 villages of the southwest region alone. Witnesses told the organization that four elderly women were burned alive in their homes during government operations in Kwakwa, Bole, and Mongo Ndor communities, while “several others in Kwakwa, Wone, Bole, and Belo, including seven people with intellectual or developmental disabilities who had difficulty fleeing were allegedly shot dead by security forces following an invasion into the affected communities.”
Reports of Cameroon’s armed forces committing grave human rights offenses against civilians in conflict areas aren't new, and they keep being repeated.
Exactly a year ago, Amnesty International issued a devastating report: “Cameroon’s Secret Torture Chambers,” documenting the cases of 101 people subjected to horrific torture at a military base in Salak and other sites in Cameroon. Many of the victims, which include women and children, told Amnesty they were accused of supporting Boko Haram and were brutally tortured by security forces who had no evidence against them.
U.S. personnel operated out of the same remote base, but an AFRICOM investigation reportedly failed to show that they were complicit in the abuses by the Cameroonian military.
Torture techniques allegedly used in the Salak facility are similar to the harsh interrogation tactics U.S. officials used on suspected al Qaeda jihadists after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. Victims in Salak have been subjected to punishments like extreme stress positions and waterboarding. Similar procedures are reportedly being used on English speakers in western regions.
“Soldiers tied us up with our hands behind our backs and asked us to lie in dirty water with our face down,” 17-year-old Gershom, who was detained in the southwest town of Dadi along with two dozen others, told The Daily Beast. “All through they kept beating us with cables, planks, and whatever they could lay their hands on.”
Despite these disturbing episodes of killings and torture, especially in Anglophone regions, the Cameroonian government denies its security forces have committed any wrongdoing, often referring to such reports as fabricated.
U.S. Amb. Peter Barlerin, while acknowledging abuses by the Anglophone rebels, has leveled pointed criticism at the government. “There have been targeted killings, detentions without access to legal support, family, or the Red Cross, and burning and looting of villages,” he noted in May, and warned, that “U.S. law prevents us from training or working with units against whom credible allegations of gross violations of human rights have been lodged.”
The United Nations is now demanding that Cameroon take action.
“I urge the Government to launch independent investigations into the reports of human rights violations by State security forces as well as abuses by armed elements,” United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, said in a statement last week. “The heavy-handed security response that the Government appears to have employed since October last year will only make matters worse for the women, children, and men caught in the middle.”