A new report by the international human rights group Amnesty International criticizes both the Cameroon military and separatists fighting the independence of the English speaking region for using unnecessary and excessive force. The rights group says civilians are frequently caught up in the violence.
It is a very quiet Wednesday morning here at the English speaking north western town of Njikwa. Hundreds of men and women usually assemble at the towns daily market, but now, there are only about half a dozen men. Trader Claude Oyebog says everyone fled when armed separatists attacked their town and killed a police man and the military reacted with extreme force,
"As I am talking to you, I do not know where my mother is, neither do I know where my brothers or my sisters are," he said.
After the attack, armed separatists claimed on social media they had occupied Njikwa. Shu Canicius Numfor, Cameroon's highest government official in the area says the fighting scared the population and thousands escaped to the bushes for their lives.
"We are struggling to get in connection with the Fons [chiefs] of the nine villages so that they should talk to their people that they should have confidence in the forces of law and order [military] who are here to guarantee their security. The government is in place, the forces of law and order are there to continue with routine activities," he said.
Njikwa is just one locality in which Amnesty International says civilians are caught in a deadly escalation of violence between the military and separatists seeking an English-speaking state.
Amnesty says Cameroon’s military has responded with arbitrary arrests, torture, unlawful killings and destruction of property. It says in one striking incident, satellite images and other photographic evidence it obtained show the complete destruction of the village of Kwakwa, which was burned to the ground by Cameroonian security forces following an operation conducted in December 2017 in connection with the killing of two police officers by suspected armed separatists.
Military spokesperson colonel Didier Badjeck has described as unfounded, allegations that the country's soldiers are using excessive force on the population and separatist fighters who for the most part are using locally made guns.
He says Amnesty should stop basing its findings on what is published on social media and go down to the affected villages and bushes. He says the reports persist in demonizing the Cameroon defense forces and that Amnesty should note that, the state of Cameroon as any other state in the world has the right of legitimate defense. He says in spite of the derogatory report, the military will remain professional as they have been.
Unrest began in Cameroon in November 2016 when English-speaking teachers and lawyers in the northwest and southwest began calling for reforms and greater autonomy. They marched on the streets, criticizing what they called the marginalization of English speakers by French speakers.
The government responded with a crackdown and massive arrests and detention of suspects and a three-month internet shutdown.
Separatist groups joined together and started calling for the independence of the English speaking from the French speaking regions.
The government said the fighters torched schools and killed at least 44 police and military personnel.
The separatist's leader Ayuk Tabe Julius was arrested along with dozens of his collaborators in Nigeria and extradited to Cameroon. They have not been seen in public since January and their followers have used social media and vowed to paralyze the country until Ayuk Tabe and 47 others are released.
More than 70 villages have been torched and the United Nations reports that hundreds of thousands have fled for their lives to the bushes and towns in the French speaking regions. At least 20,000 have crossed over to Nigeria. Two hundred have died and hundreds are missing.