Brussels — Cameroonian soldiers went on a rampage in the English-speaking North-West region on May 15, 2019, burning over 70 homes in Mankon, Bamenda. Soldiers dragged one man from his house, shooting him dead in the street.
In a news release issued on May 16, the defense ministry announced that it had opened an investigation into the burning of homes and destruction of property. The government should hold soldiers involved accountable.
"The government's move to investigate these attacks on civilians and their property is an important step to ensure accountability," said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The investigation should be prompt, independent, and impartial, but it should not end there. The government should immediately review other cases of alleged abuses by its security forces and prosecute those responsible."
Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 residents of Mankon, including 10 witnesses, who described how soldiers from the Air Force and the Rapid Intervention Battalion coordinated the attack. Human Rights Watch also reviewed satellite imagery showing over 70 buildings affected by fire and photographs and videos showing extensive destruction of property.
Over the past three years, Cameroon's Anglophone regions have been embroiled in a cycle of violence that has led to 1,800 deaths and uprooted half a million people from their homes. Government forces and armed separatist groups have committed serious human rights abuses against the civilian population.
On May 15, following the killing of two Air Force soldiers by suspected armed separatists, security forces killed Nwacha Christopher Neba, a 41-year-old mechanic, and burned down scores of private homes and shops across Alachu, Matsam, and Muwatsu, three neighborhoods in Mankon, in what appears to be retaliation against residents perceived as sympathetic to separatists. A witness said that the military went to Neba's house in Alachu, "broke down the door, pulled him out, and beat him savagely." The witness then heard gunshots. He said the man's body was found in the street shortly afterward, shot in the head and the back.
Ten witnesses said soldiers looted homes and shops and killed domestic animals.
A pastor whose home was burned in the Alachu neighborhood said that Air Force soldiers stormed his neighborhood at around 2:30 p.m., shooting indiscriminately. "When we saw them approaching, we ran away and sought refuge in a nearby church," he said. "The soldiers shot my five pigs, broke the door of my home, and set it ablaze. We saw them stealing drinks from a store, drinking and celebrating."
Another Alachu resident, a teacher, said: "When the soldiers came, I ran, and they chased me. I managed to hide in the Baptist church. When I came out, I found that my house was completely burned and now I have nothing left."
A local authority from Muwatsu said: "In our area, more than 100 people are now homeless. The military burned up to 20 homes and destroyed our neighborhood council office."
In the days that followed the attack, the military prevented some residents from taking photos and assessing damage to their homes. "The day after the attack I tried to go back and evaluate the extent of the destruction," an Alachu resident said. "I was stopped by the soldiers stationed at the junction in Mile 8 and threatened at gunpoint because I tried to take pictures of my burned home."
On May 17, the governor of the North-West region established a commission to identify victims from the "incident" in Mankon and evaluate their needs, the humanitarian situation, and the material damage and property destroyed. The commission is scheduled to submit its report by May 24.
Unlawful killings and destruction of private property by the Cameroonian security forces have been rife since the crisis started. Human Rights Watch has documented extensive burning of villages by members of the security forces between 2017 and 2019 in both the North-West and South-West regions, as well as killings of civilians.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights requested permission to investigate abuses in the Anglophone regions in 2018. The government has not yet granted permission. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights visited Cameroon in early May and raised the lack of access for both international and national human rights activists and humanitarian agencies.
The Cameroon government denied a Human Rights Watch researcher entry to the country on April 12, two days after Human Rights Watch published a report on a deadly attack by soldiers, gendarmes, and members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion on a village in the North-West region.
Both Cameroonian authorities and the separatists should stop abuses of residents and ensure that humanitarian organizations have free and unhindered access to the area to assess the needs of the population and provide assistance, Human Rights Watch said. The government should also permit human rights monitors to operate without hindrance and allow independent scrutiny of its efforts to adhere to international human rights law.
"Cameroonian soldiers dragged a man out of his home and killed him in Mankon, and burned dozens of houses to the ground," Mudge said. "Cameroonian authorities should ensure that the investigation of the attack is independent and transparent and holds those responsible accountable. And it should allow independent monitors into the country."