“Grave abuses” are being committed in Cameroon by both separatists and government forces following months of conflict, a report has warned.
Scores of people have died and about 180,000 have been displaced from the country’s English-speaking regions, forced to hide in forests, after Anglophones demanded respect for their area’s educational and judicial systems in late 2016.
This escalated into armed confrontation and heavy-handed government repression, despite ongoing negotiations between the two sides.
Separatist activists, who want an independent state for the English-speaking regions, began torching schools, and threatened teachers and students to follow a boycott after two of their negotiators were arrested.
Unicef said at least 58 schools had been damaged since the beginning of the crisis.
Now, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is warning that the two sides of the crisis are committing “grave abuses”, accusing the government of burning villages and attacking civilians.
Cameroon has long been divided between English-speaking and French-speaking regions, with Anglophones predominantly living in the north west and south west of the African nation.
Research by HRW, which involved interviewing people in the country and analysing satellite images, led them to report: “Anglophone separatists have extorted, kidnapped and killed civilians, and prevented children from going to school.
“In response to protests and violence by armed separatists, government forces have killed civilians, used excessive force against demonstrators, tortured and mistreated suspected separatists and detainees, and burned hundreds of homes in several villages.”
Activists calling for separation have dubbed their regions “Ambazonia”. One Cameroonian journalist estimates there could be anywhere between five and 20 separatist groups based around the region.
Demonstrations by the “Republic of Ambazonia” at the end of 2017 led to a violent reaction from the government, whose forces killed 20 people.
But the repression made the separatists bolder, and more attacks have been carried out on schools and government outposts.
Separatists have been accused of kidnapping school principals, targeting civilians who side with the government for extortion, torture and murder, and threatening schools with arson attacks.
The government has used tear gas and live ammunition to disperse protesters, tortured and detained civilians, killing some, and burned villages.
As recently as last week, a convoy transporting the country’s defence minister Joseph Beti Assomo was ambushed, triggering a firefight that left several dead.
Satellite imagery monitored by HRW shows several hundred homes with signs of destruction by arson in at least 20 villages in the south west region alone.
Witnesses from five villages told HRW they fled security forces as they entered, and then watched smoke rise from their houses.
Some reported that four elderly women were burned alive in their homes, while others said they saw people shot by government forces.
One victim told HRW: “They came to the house that I took 10 years to build. They came and burned our compound. Everything was burned.
“Now, I live in misery. I am lost. I have no job, no money, no house, no food, no clothing. I used to stand strong, but this one…I feel psychologically defeated. I don’t know where to start.”
Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The human rights situation in Cameroon has reached crisis level and could still get much worse.
“International action is needed to ensure that both sides protect civilians and ensure justice for crimes against them.”
The government of Cameroon responded to the HRW report, saying: “Extremists, most of whom are based outside the country and with local links, made a move to undermine such efforts [of consultation between government and union] and aggravate the situation, by trying to replace sometimes legitimate demands by trade unions with a secessionist agenda.
“Through more extravagant claims, manipulation, intimidation, threats and diverse pressures, the extremists stalled dialogue and created a climate of fear and tension through misinformation, the dissemination of hate messages and incitement to violence.”
The government acknowledged the arrests of 965 people, saying 114 had faced trial. Of those, 30 were acquitted, and charged were dropped against 103, but hundreds more are still in prison.