Nairobi — Concrete action is needed to make the humanitarian response to the crisis in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon more inclusive of people with disabilities, Human Rights Watch said today on International Human Rights Day. In September 2019, the United Nations under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs made a commitment to make the humanitarian response more inclusive, but the commitment needs to be translated into action on the ground.
Violence has intensified since July 2019 in the North-West and South-West regions, escalating in August after a Yaoundé military court handed down life sentences to 10 leaders of the separatist Ambazonia Interim Government following a flawed trial. Human Rights Watch research and media reports indicate that at least 130 civilians have been killed in over 100 incidents since July, and thousands have been forced to flee. Given the ongoing violence and the difficulty of collecting information from remote areas, the number of civilian deaths - including of people with disabilities - is most likely higher.
"As the crisis in the Anglophone regions shows no sign of slowing, people with disabilities are struggling to find safety and face heightened risks of attacks, displacement, and abandonment," said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. "Cameroonian authorities and armed separatists should stop their abuses against civilians, while international organizations should fulfil their promises to those most affected by the crisis, including people with disabilities."
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported in November that the humanitarian situation deteriorated, with over 656,000 internally displaced people in the Anglophone regions. Humanitarian access to people in need is difficult, with aid workers facing greater risks. In October alone, armed separatists kidnapped 10 aid workers, all of whom have been released. Another aid worker was killed in November.
On September 10, President Paul Biya called for a "national dialogue" to address the Anglophone crisis. The dialogue ended on October 4 with the release of hundreds of people arrested in connection with the unrest in the regions, as well as political opponents. However, violence has continued unabated.
Between September and November, Human Rights Watch interviewed 24 people with disabilities living in the Anglophone regions, their family members, as well as representatives of UN agencies and of national and international humanitarian organizations. Human Rights Watch research indicates that people with disabilities are more likely to be exposed to danger from attacks, including because of barriers to escaping and staying out of harm's way, and because of the degradation of whatever support systems existed before the crisis.
Since the crisis in the Anglophone regions started three years ago, Human Rights Watch has documented the experiences of people with disabilities who were unable to flee to safety, or were killed, assaulted, and tortured by soldiers or armed separatists. New cases have been documented since August 2019.
In one case, on September 19, Cameroonian security forces searching for armed separatists attacked a locality called "Number One Water" near the town of Muyenge, South-West region, killing four civilian men, including a man with an intellectual disability. A witness to the attack said people fled when the military arrived and started shooting: "I hid in the nearby bush and I went back when things calmed down, the same day. I found four bodies on the ground and helped bury them. Among those killed, there was a man called 'Jasper,' who had an intellectual disability, which is the reason why he stayed behind. The military killed him in front of his hut. His body was partly burned, because the military also set his hut on fire."
In another case, a 65-year-old farmer with a physical disability saw soldiers from the Rapid Intervention Battalion (Bataillon d'intervention rapide, BIR) destroy at least seven homes, including his, when they attacked his village, Nchum, North-West region, on October 30. "I hid near a spring when the military came," he said. "I couldn't run, because of my disability, and my family left me behind. I saw more than fifteen soldiers, who came with two vehicles. My house was well constructed, with cement blocks, and they burned it to the ground after throwing a grenade against it." The burning in Nchum occurred one day after the military attacked a nearby village, Muchweni, where the BIR burned homes in retaliation for an ambush to a military convoy by the separatists on October 28.
The humanitarian response in Cameroon is severely underfunded, exacerbating the risks of people with disabilities whose basic needs, including food, shelter, sanitation, health, and education, are not being met. The UN resident coordinator in Cameroon, Allegra Baiocchi, told Human Rights Watch in November: "This acute underfunding of our humanitarian response in Cameroon is leaving millions of people without vital humanitarian assistance and protection, reinforcing the vicious cycle of vulnerability and violence."
However, in September, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, Mark Lowcock, announced the release of US$75 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to support underfunded responses, including in Cameroon, which received $5 million. The CERF allocation, Lowcock said, will prioritize assistance to people most at risk, including people with disabilities.
In November, the UN issued the Guidelines on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action. These guidelines, developed by the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), aim at assisting aid agencies in making sure people with disabilities are included in all phases of humanitarian action, from planning to coordination and monitoring. They have been circulated in Cameroon among UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations to raise awareness and to be put into practice.
"Slowly but surely, progress is being made and the experiences of people with disabilities affected by the crisis in Cameroon are being recognized and addressed," Barriga said. "UN agencies and humanitarian organizations operating in the North-West and South-West regions should now deliver on commitments and make sure their response is as inclusive and accessible as possible."
The Crisis in the Anglophone Regions
The crisis in the North-West and South-West regions began in late 2016, when teachers, lawyers, students, and activists, who had long complained of their regions' perceived marginalization by the central government, took to the streets to demand more recognition of their political, social, and cultural rights. The brutal response by government forces - who killed peaceful protesters, arrested leaders, banned civil society groups, and blocked the internet - escalated the crisis. Since then, numerous separatist groups have emerged calling for the independence of the Anglophone regions and using force to press their cause. Government forces and armed separatists have both been responsible for serious human rights abuses.
Voices of People with Disabilities from the Anglophone Regions
"Frank," 27, who has a physical disability, was shot in the leg by government soldiers as he attempted to flee fighting between the Cameroonian military and armed separatists in his village, Mamu, in the South-West region, on July 29, 2019.
It was about 11 a.m. when the shooting started. I saw one military armored car and two military pickups. The soldiers were shooting towards my direction. I was trying to go back home to gather my family so we could all run to safety. But before I reached the house, I was hit by a bullet fired in the same leg which was already having a problem. I fell. I was bleeding. A friend rescued me and carried me on his shoulders to a nearby house.
"Frank" was later taken to the regional hospital in Buea, where he underwent surgery and was hospitalized for over three weeks.
On July 28, soldiers of the BIR raided Nkogho village, South-West region, and killed "Alain," a 60-year-old man with an intellectual disability, in front of his house.
A witness said:
As the military invaded our village, everyone ran away for safety, but 'Alain' didn't. He did not understand what was happening because of his disability. He was shot from behind, and the bullet exited near the heart. The soldiers also burned down his home. We buried him the following day.
Denis, a 30-year-old man from Lysoka village, in the South-West region, has lymphatic filariasis since 2013. It is a disease caused by a parasitic worm, transmitted by mosquitoes, which can cause tissue swelling and a physical disability.
On August 12, 2019, he was abandoned in his home after fighting between the military and armed separatists in Lysoka.
The BIR soldiers and gendarmes clashed with a group of Amba boys [armed separatists]. It caused serious shooting, and I was home alone, sick. Everybody in the village ran away into the bushes, and nobody bothered to know my whereabouts. I stayed home until the gunfire stopped in the evening. I remained in the house alone for three days without food or medication. On August 15, some people started returning. That's when they discovered that I had not escaped. They apologized to me and said it was too dangerous for them to return for me.... I cannot run when attacks occur. I feel as if I'm a burden to my family, both physically and financially.
Denis is still living in Lysoka despite the continuing violence. His elder brother provides for him. He has not received any humanitarian assistance.
Regina, a 75-year-old-blind woman, refused to flee her village, Ekona, in the South-West region, when fighting between the military and armed separatists broke out on July 8.
"My family escaped to the bush, but I did not go," she said. "I survived alone with the little that was left in the house. It was very difficult."
She had fled fighting in October 2018 and caught typhoid from drinking dirty water in the forest. Since then, she decided that she would stay behind, including during attacks. Due to inaccessible terrain and lack of support, Regina is in danger, as violence continues around her village. She said that she was feeling increasingly vulnerable: "The worst consequence of this crisis is that I no longer appreciate life. I just wish to die so I can end my suffering. I prefer to stay in the house and just die there."
Chrispu, a 75-year-old man from Ekona, South-West region, is blind and has a mental health condition and a physical disability. His daughter said that, at times, due to the violence, she had to abandon him at home in the deserted village for days, with little access to food and water:
On June 21, a mix of BIR, regular army soldiers, and gendarmes fought the Amba [separatists] in our neighborhood. There was gunfire and everyone ran away for safety. I had to leave my father behind. I couldn't take the risk to carry him because I could have been killed if I didn't run fast. I hid in the bush for one week. When I came back, I found my dad in very bad condition. He was very sick.
The crisis has strained family relations, as Chrispu is increasingly perceived as a burden. His younger brother said: "He's like a heavy weight. We cannot be safe if we take him with us when we have to run away for safety." Chrispu's daughter said: "My father's disability is a big stumbling block. When others are fleeing violence to seek refuge in safer areas, we cannot go. We have to stay to look after him. So, we are all stuck in an unsafe place."
Cusmas, a 65-year-old blind man from Mautu village, South-West region, who lives with his wife and daughters, said that when attacks occur in his village, his family repeatedly faces the difficult choice of whether to help him at the risk of being killed or flee without him. He is often left behind.
One of Cusmas' daughters said:
Whenever there is shooting, what comes first in my mind is my father. This is because we cannot do anything but to lock him alone in the house since we cannot carry him. I am always frightened whenever we are in the bush thinking that, when we come back home, we could find my father dead.
Accessing necessities, such as food and the latrine, is difficult for Cusmas when he is left alone. As a result, he is afraid and anxious.
Being deprived of my basic needs, struggling to find something to eat, feeling alone in dangerous place ... all this has affected my spirit. Although I have a stick to help me moving, it is difficult to get to the toilet alone. I also need help to bathe. But the worst of all my worries is that I always feel that the military will one day burn me in the house alive. Before this crisis, I had challenges in moving and accessing services, but I didn't have any fear. Now I am constantly afraid, and I tell my children that they should be ready to face the worst at any time.