Cameroon's military has freed nine civilians who say they were held hostage by anglophone separatists for close to two months. Some of the freed hostages say the rebels tortured them, chopping off their ears and fingers.
Dozens of people on Monday visited the military camp in the English-speaking town of Bamenda. The visitors said they wanted to find out if their relatives were among the hostages freed by Cameroon’s army on Saturday.
The military said the nine former hostages are all males between 16 and 27 years old.
Peter Atteh, 24, says he was abducted from the village of Pinyin by armed men on March 23. He says separatists accused him of collaborating with the military when he refused to join their cause.
Atteh says while in captivity, he endured the worst moments of his life.
"We were sleeping on the bare floor. We had no food to eat," he told VOA. "They were giving us plastic to defecate in, and later they tell us to go and throw it either in the bush or in the river. Even to urinate, we were given containers. You will urinate in the containers and the worse part of it is that we were being beaten. Beaten with a cutlass [machete].”
Atteh said six of his fingers were chopped off with a machete when he made a failed attempt to escape.
Separatists have said on social media that the kidnappers were criminals, not their fighters — a claim the military has rejected.
All the freed hostages looked tired, hungry and unkempt. Two had parts of their ears chopped off. Two of the former hostages said they spent two months in captivity and that seven captives were freed after their families paid ransom.
Atteh said three other captives who agreed to join the fighters were not tortured.
The military said Saturday's operation was designed to free kidnap victims in the northwestern towns of Pinyin, Santa and Akum. It said nine hostages were freed and two fighters killed while at least 20 armed men escaped and are hiding in the bush.
Mildred Awemo, a 26-year-old former student at Pinyin, says she saw the corpses of two civilians after the military raid. She says the troops arrested many civilians and tortured four who were rushed to a hospital in Pinyin by villagers.
"When the military attacks a village, they do not distinguish between the fighters and the civilians," she said. "They just torment everybody. We want to be free but the military has to know who are the civilians, because they are trained to know the civilians and also the fighters. The military is trained to fight those who are holding guns and not the civilians who are harmless."
Nka Valere, the commander of troops fighting separatists in the Northwest, denies any wrongdoing by his troops.
Nka says his troops will intensify attacks to clean the English-speaking northwestern town of Bamenda and its environs of fighters who are hiding in the community and creating disorder.
He says the duty of the military is to ensure that total peace and serenity returns. He says it is imperative for the population to collaborate with the troops by denouncing suspected fighters hiding in the midst of civilians.
Separatists have been fighting since 2017 to carve out an independent, English-speaking nation from the rest of French-speaking Cameroon.