An attack by Cameroonian soldiers on March 1, 2020 has come to light in which soldiers raped at least 20 women, including four with disabilities, arrested 35 men, and killed one man, Human Rights Watch said today. The attack on the village of Ebam in the South-West region was one of the worst by Cameroon's army in recent years.
The soldiers also burned one home, looted scores of properties, and severely beat the men they took to a military base. Based on information obtained by Human Rights Watch, there has been no effective investigation, and no one has been held accountable for the crimes.
"Sexual violence and torture are heinous crimes that governments have an obligation to immediately, effectively, and independently investigate, and to bring those responsible to justice," said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "One year on, survivors of the Ebam attack are desperate for justice and reparations, and they live with the disturbing knowledge that those who abused them are walking free and have faced no consequences."
Cameroon's North-West and South-West regions have been rife with violence since late 2016, as armed separatists seek independence for the
country's minority Anglophone regions.
Human Rights Watch conducted telephone interviews between August 1 and January 5, 2021 with 20 rape survivors, four men who were arrested and beaten, four witnesses to the attack, two relatives of the man who was killed, a medical doctor who screened the rape survivors, two aid workers who helped the victims, and two United Nations officials with knowledge of the incident. Human Rights Watch also consulted confidential reports by an international nongovernmental organization and the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, a Cameroonian rights group based in Buea, South-West region, which corroborated the findings.
Human Rights Watch shared its findings with senior officials at the Cameroonian Presidency in a January 13 letter, requesting answers to specific questions. Cameroonian officials have yet to respond.
Witnesses said that over 50 soldiers entered Ebam, in Manyu division, in the South-West region, at about 3 a.m. on March 1, 2020, on foot leaving their vehicles in the outskirts. They broke into almost all the 75 homes in the village, looting money and other items, and dragging men out. Some soldiers rounded up men in the village center, while others sexually assaulted the women, including four with disabilities, mostly in their homes.
"Five masked soldiers entered my home," a 40-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch. "It was dark, and I was alone. They searched the house and stole my phone and money. One of them abused me. He said: 'If you don't have sex with me, I will kill you!' I was too afraid to say or do anything. After the rape, I ran into the bush where I spent two months. I am still upset and traumatized."
None of the rape survivors interviewed could get post-rape medical care in the immediate aftermath of the attack due to a range of obstacles, including displacement, lack of medical facilities, the cost of travel to such facilities, the cost of medical care, and fear of stigma and rejection. Some had medical care, such as screening for sexually transmitted infections, for the first time only in late July and mid-August, or even later.
A doctor who screened the survivors in August said that women described symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress and depression: fear, anxiety, sleeplessness, and an inability to complete daily tasks. Rape survivors said they are struggling to rebuild their lives and provide for themselves and their families.
Witnesses said that at the end of the three-hour attack, soldiers took at least 36 men to a military base in Besongabang, about eight kilometers away, where the soldiers beat the men severely and repeatedly, amounting to torture. The soldiers detained the men at the base for a day then transferred them to the gendarmerie brigade in Mamfe, the main city in Manyu division.
"The soldiers put us on a military truck and took us to their camp," a 25-year-old man said. "My hands were tied behind my back. When we reached the camp, soldiers beat me up. They hit my legs very strongly; I still have scars."
Four of the men held at the military base in Besongabang said that soldiers removed 34-year-old Ojong Thomas Ebot from the cell where they were held, and that he never returned. They believed that the soldiers later killed Ojong in the forest surrounding Ebam.
Six other witnesses said that at about 7 a.m. they saw a military truck coming back to Ebam and leaving shortly after. Residents discovered Ojong's body less than one hour later. Two of Ojong's relatives said they buried him the same day.
A 28-year-old student and family member said: "They brought the body home. I saw three gunshot wounds on it: one in the head, which was the worst, one in the chest, one in the elbow. The head was almost destroyed. It was painful to see."
Human Rights Watch reviewed photographs showing the exact location where Ojong was buried in Ebam and corroborated them with accounts from family members and residents of the village.
Witnesses said that the military operation was a reprisal attack to punish civilians suspected of collaborating with and harboring armed separatist fighters. Soldiers who raped women also implied in their verbal abuse that they were carrying out the rapes in part as a form of punishment for any presumed affiliation with armed separatist fighters.
A 28-year-old woman who was raped and witnessed the attack told Human Rights Watch: "The military asked me and other villagers: 'Where are you keeping the amba [separatists]?' We said we did not know where the amba [separatists] were. So, they [the soldiers] said: 'The next time we come here, we'll shoot everyone if you don't show us the amba [separatists] now.'"
The Ebam attack occurred 15 days after soldiers in Ngarbuh, North-West region massacred 21 civilians, including a pregnant woman and 13 children, prompting a public outcry in Cameroon and beyond.
The attack has gone largely unreported for a year, due in part to the stigma and fear of reprisal which discourages survivors of sexual violence from speaking out about what they experienced. Underreporting by survivors also suggests that incidents of sexual violence by soldiers is probably much higher than the documented cases, Human Rights Watch said.
Human Rights Watch has documented widespread human rights violations by members of the Cameroonian security forces in the Anglophone regions since 2017, including torture and sexual violence. There has been little to no accountability for military abuses in the English-speaking regions over the past four years, and atrocities by members of national armed forces remain largely unpunished.
The Cameroonian government has legal obligations under international law to ensure that those responsible for sexual violence and other grave crimes such as murder, torture, and inhuman treatment are investigated and prosecuted. The government also has an obligation to provide reparations, such as compensation, livelihood support, or access to long-term medical and psychological health care for survivors of such attacks.
"Cameroonian authorities should urgently conduct an independent investigation into the Ebam attack, with support from the United Nations and the African Union, and make its findings public," Sawyer said. "Ensuring justice and reparations will be essential for deterring future attacks and helping survivors heal."