IKOM, Nigeria—Lucy was contemplating closing early for the day when soldiers—believed to be from the Cameroon government’s notorious Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR)—stormed her shop in the northwestern Cameroon town of Bamenda at the end of August, dragged her outside, asked her to take off the shirt she was wearing, and forced her to sit on the bare ground for hours.
“When I asked them what I had done wrong, one of them gave me a terrible slap and began to kick me all over my body,” Lucy, who sells foodstuffs close to a market in Bamenda, told The Daily Beast via telephone. “I thought the soldiers were going to kill me.”
On the same day Lucy was brutalized by government forces in Bamenda, about 80 other women—mostly traders at the local food market—were detained at a police station for three days, many of them beaten and wounded by soldiers who were searching for English-speaking separatists following the killing of a police officer days before.
“The soldiers entered the food market unannounced and began to forcefully remove everybody to the mobile police station,” said Lucy, who wanted to be identified by just her first name. “They looted and destroyed shops and ordered every woman to sit on the ground. The weather was so hot and some women collapsed as a result of the heat.”
Scores of women have been assaulted and abused by both Cameroonian government forces and English-speaking separatists in the northwest and southwest Anglophone parts of Cameroon since violence erupted in the two regions, along the long Nigerian border, more than three years ago.
Reports of sexual violence against women have grown in recent months, mostly perpetrated by BIR soldiers who’ve received lots of financial support from the United States in recent years. Last year, Human Rights Watch documented how two BIR soldiers raped a 22-year-old mother in the northwest and how a 23-year-old woman and a 17-year-old girl in the same home were raped in front of two children by three BIR soldiers who accused them of hiding separatists. Women have also been assaulted while fleeing from their communities.
“Soldiers stopped us as we were heading to the [Nigerian] border and forced us to take off our clothes,” a 17-year-girl, who fled the Cameroonian town of Akwaya with her 25-year-old sister to the Ogoja refugee settlement in Nigeria, told The Daily Beast. “They began to touch our private parts and were about to rape us when they heard gunshots, which made them leave us and run away.”
In recent years, the Cameroonian military—including the BIR—has relied heavily on the U.S. for funding. Since 2014, America has given more than $220 million to Cameroon in security assistance—including $700,000 spent so far this year on assisting the country’s military and police.
Created in 2001 by the Cameroonian government to tackle armed bandits on its northern border with Chad and Nigeria and its eastern border with the Central African Republic, the BIR soon began to stray from its original mission—allegedly committing a number of human-rights atrocities including extrajudicial killing of civilians suspected to work for Boko Haram militants in northern Cameroon.The elite army unit, which is better trained and equipped than the regular Cameroonian army, is overseen by retired Israeli officers who report directly to President Paul Biya. These officers were recently accused of living extravagantly. One of them was reported to have bought properties worth about $32 million in New York and Los Angeles, and spent his holidays in luxury resorts in the Bahamas, costing $20,000 per night.
But the rapid reaction force isn’t the only group that has targeted women and girls in western Cameroon. Armed separatists have assaulted and murdered women amid intensifying violence and growing calls for secession of the northwest and southwest regions.
In an astonishing video widely shared on social media last month, three suspected separatist fighters in the southwestern town of Muyuka were seen beating and dragging a woman whom the government later identified as Confort Tumassang, a 35-year-old mother of four. Her hands were tied behind her back and Tumassang, who was accused of collaborating with the military, could be heard in the clip begging for mercy. She was then beheaded and her body abandoned in the street. The incident, which occurred on Aug. 11, came during the same period that reports of sexual assault perpetrated by separatists on women in Anglophone communities began to grow.
“My 17-year-old cousin was raped by two rebels on her way to the market." Helen, a 25-year-old hairdresser in Muyuka, told The Daily Beast via telephone. “They beat her up and threatened to kill her before eventually raping her.”
Rape has become one of the most common forms of violence against women in the conflict in the western Cameroon. A study last year by the Rural Women Center for Education and Development, a Cameroonian non-profit group, revealed that at least 300 school-age girls from the northwest region became pregnant after being raped by suspected separatist fighters or government soldiers, and that many victims terminated their pregnancies with unsafe or crude abortions. Following the revelation, Cameroon government officials noted that the actual number could be much higher, as many girls involved in the practice do so in hiding.
“It is obviously clear that rape has become a weapon of war in the conflict in western Cameroon,” Eno Edet, a human rights lawyer and advocate in Cross River State—which is hosting the vast majority of Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria—told The Daily Beast. “There are dozens of Cameroonian girls in refugee settlements here in Cross River with stories of sexual assault perpetrated by separatists or government forces back in their country.”
Cameroon’s western regions descended into conflict in 2016 when the government repressed peaceful protests by English speakers against perceived marginalization. It turned into a full war when separatists declared western Cameroon an independent nation in October 2017. Over 3,000 civilian deaths have been recorded, along with dozens of soldiers killed by separatists. More than 700,000 Anglophone Cameroonians have been displaced during the crisis, and at least 52,000 people are currently taking refuge in Nigeria.
As The Daily Beast previously reported, Anglophones make up about 20 percent of Cameroon’s population of 26 million. In February 1961, the United Nations organized a referendum in which English-speaking Cameroonians, then under British rule, voted to rejoin Francophone Cameroon. Both merged on Oct. 1, 1961, and inherited a constitution which recognized the country as a federation of two states with “the same status.” But not long after the reunification, things began to change. Then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo, a Francophone, replaced the two federal states with six regions. He appointed federal inspectors of each region and gave them more power than locally elected politicians. Ahidjo followed up by discarding the currency used by the Anglophones. He refused to recognize Cameroon’s membership of the Commonwealth, and he abolished federalism altogether through a national referendum.
Incumbent President Paul Biya, also a Francophone, succeeded Ahidjo in November 1982 and began to introduce policies similar to that of his predecessor. In 1983, he split the Anglophone region into the Northwest and Southwest provinces. A year later he changed the country’s official name to the Republic of Cameroon, as it was known as when it was a Francophone territory, and removed the second star from the flag that had stood as a representation of the Anglophone region.
Many prominent figures in Cameroon’s western region from time to time condemned the policies of the Biya administration as they affect the western region, but when the government went ahead to appoint French-speaking magistrates in Anglophone courts, many believed he had gone too far.
Unfortunately, the conflict that followed has crippled social amenities and left much of the Anglophone region in ruins. But it is the frequent targeting of women and girls by major players in the war that leaves many in English-speaking communities worried.
“We are living in fear because women are becoming victims of rape every day,” said Helen, the hairdresser in Muyuka. “The other day, it was my cousin [who was raped]. Tomorrow, it could be another innocent woman. No woman is safe here.”