YAOUNDE - Cameroon's military has detained hundreds of people in the country's troubled northwest as they search for separatists following the killing of a police officer this week. Locals accuse the military of carrying out revenge attacks, including looting and burning shops, in the English-speaking region — a charge the military denies.
Thirty-four-year old fish seller Ernestine Sahmo says she has decided to temporarily leave the English-speaking northwestern town of Bamenda due to what she says is military brutality.
Sahmo says she was forced out of her shop by armed soldiers who detained 80 other women at a police station for three days.
"The military entered the whole market and was removing everybody," she said. "They will break into your store and then start brutalizing you, asking you to go out. They succeeded to remove everybody from the food market to the mobile police station. We were being asked to sit on the ground. Some women were collapsing. The way they terrorized us, we never knew we would come back alive."
Sahmo says store owners’ goods were either looted or torched by the military.
Last Monday, the government said separatist fighters in Bamenda killed a policeman in active service. The military was then deployed to hunt for the killers.
Residents said troops started arresting people indiscriminately, forcing some either to undress or to sit on the floor for several hours.
Scared civilians escaped to neighboring villages and French-speaking towns including Mbouda and Bafoussam. The government said at least two civilians were killed but did not say if separatists or troops were responsible.
General Valere Nka, the commander of government troops fighting the separatists in the English-speaking northwest regions, says the military has not committed any atrocities. He says his troops have remained professional.
He says his troops fully obey instructions given by the military hierarchy for civilians to be protected and their human rights respected. Nka says he expects civilians who have been assured of total protection by the military to denounce all suspected separatist fighters in their localities.
Mka pledged to kill all fighters who do not drop their weapons and seek forgiveness.
Rights groups and opposition political parties have condemned the military for what they say are excesses and torture of civilians in handling the crisis.
Prince Ekosso, president of the opposition United Socialist Party, says civilians are scared of the military. He says some of the abuses inflicted by troops on civilians are unbearable.
"These are the things that we have decried for too long," he said. "The people of the northwest and the southwest region cannot continue to suffer like this. You don't go and punish innocent people for the crimes of another person. The military continues to terrorize the people."
Last week, a Cameroonian rights group, the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, released what it said is a list of atrocities committed in the English-speaking regions between May and August.
The group accused the military of atrocities including extra-judicial executions, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, looting and extortion, poor prison conditions, and inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees.
The human rights body called for an investigation to be carried out and those found guilty to be punished.
Unrest broke out in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions in 2016, when teachers and lawyers protested the dominance of the French language and French-speaking officials.
Rebels took up arms a year later, demanding a separate English-speaking state they call “Ambazonia.”