YAOUNDE - A least 35 civilians have reportedly been killed and 40 homes torched in less than a week in Cameroon's English-speaking Northwest region, following bloody clashes between government troops and separatists fighting for the creation of an independent English-speaking state called Ambazonia. Both the rebels and the government blame each other for the gruesome murder of civilians, including children trapped in their burning homes. Affected relatives and communities that have escaped to the French-speaking capital, Yaounde, are trying to deal with the situation.
Cameroonians from Donga Mantung, an administrative unit in the English-speaking Northwest region in Yaounde are trying to come to terms with news about massacres in their villages. Among them is 38-year-old Bruno Ngeh, who said his wife's older sister's entire family of nine was killed in an attack in the village of Ngarr-buh Friday.
"These people had taken refuge in Ngarr-buh thinking that they were going to be safe in such a place but they never knew that they will be killed in their sleep by the very military that is supposed to protect them. I think it is time for the international community to put pressure on the Cameroon government to find a quick settlement to this conflict that has claimed so many lives," he said.
Donga Mantung's Roman Catholic, Baptist and Presbyterian churches decried the killing in services Sunday, saying at least 29 civilians, including children and a pregnant women, were killed, and 14 houses were torched in the fighting.
'Military responsible for the killings'
Like Ngeh, they all said it was the military that was responsible for the killings.
The military said many people were killed in raids but gave no further details. Local media reported that at least 35 civilians were killed in the crossfire between separatist fighters and the military or burned when their houses were torched.
Separatist leader Samuel Ikome Sako, who calls himself interim president of Ambazonia, the English-speaking republic the separatists want to create, said the civilians were killed and their houses torched by Cameroon troops he describes as occupational forces dispatched by the French-speaking government in Yaounde to keep the English-speaking part of the country under their grip. In a message shared on social media platforms, Sako describes the killings as a massacre. He said his fighters have counted at least 40 civilian corpses in less than a week.
"This is wickedness. These people [military] now are walking into houses, burn as many, then select families, pull them out [and] shoot. 22 in Donga Mantung, 19 in Bui, many more in Ngoketunjia. We are loosing hundreds per day," said Sako.
Similar attacks were reported in several villages of the Bui, Ngoketunjia and Mezam administrative units in the English-speaking Northwest and Lebialem and Manyu administrative units in the English-speaking South West.
Cameroon said in January it had deployed at least 1,000 additional troops to the crisis-prone English-speaking regions prior to the February 9 local council and parliamentary elections separatist fighters had vowed to disrupt. Since the troop reinforcement, there have been several attacks on suspected separatist strongholds.
Cameroon's defense chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Rene Claude Meka, speaking on state media CRTV denied his troops were responsible for the atrocities. He said the military has remained professional and blames separatists for the atrocities.
Meka said everyone should know that the military is out to defend Cameroon's territorial integrity and its population from terrorists. He said in this very difficult moment, the military needs collaboration from the population to effectively defend civilians. He said anyone who has information that can be of help in fighting the terrorists should not hesitate to inform the military that is out to protect people and their property.
Human rights violations
In its 2020 World Report, the rights group Human Rights Watch blames both government troops and separatist fighters for gross human rights violations. It says Cameroonian security forces respond to increasing attacks by armed separatist groups by burning hundreds of homes and other property in villages and cities across the North West and South West regions, and torture suspected separatists in detention.
It also accuses armed separatist groups of killing, torture, assault, and kidnapping dozens of people, including students, teachers, members of the clergy, and administrative and traditional authorities.
Separatists have been fighting since 2017 to split the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest from the rest of the country and its French-speaking majority.
The secessionist uprising in the English-speaking regions, home to an estimated seven million people, has cost more than 3,000 lives and forced 500,000 to flee either to the French-speaking regions or into neighboring Nigeria according to the United Nations.