A pregnant woman and 14 children were among 32 killed in an attack Friday in Cameroon’s civil war-ridden English-speaking region. While the military has been blamed, an Army spokesperson has refuted claims that the military blatantly killed civilians.
The attack took place in the village of Ntumbo, in Cameroon’s Northwest region, according to United Nations official James Nunan. Nunan heads the Buea sub-office for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Nunan told the media that several victims were burned to death. Additionally, he said an unknown number of residents were injured and around 600 have fled from the village.
While initial reports suggested that 22 were killed in Ntumbo, Cameroonian activist and human rights lawyer Felix Agbor Nkongho told CNN on Monday that the death toll has been raised to 32.
"The military officers responsible for these heinous crimes must be brought to justice," Nkongho, who works with the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, said.
The attack comes as Cameroon’s Anglophone region has suffered from violence and conflict that emerged after English-speaking communities began protesting in 2016. Many in the English-speaking regions felt their voices were not being fairly represented in the French-speaking central government.
The Cameroonian military has been accused in the last few years of attacking farming communities in southern Cameroon supportive of separatist efforts, killing citizens and burning villages. The military has also been accused of encouraging radical Fulani herders to carry out attacks on separatist communities.
As both the military and opposition have been accused of violating the rights of civilians, as many as 3,000 people have been killed and over 700,000 displaced as a result of the conflict.
A resident of Ntumbo told CNN that security forces came to the village looking for separatists and burned houses in the village. She said that nine of her family members were killed.
"My sister and her family were killed in their sleep as the military torched houses because they suspected that separatist fighters were hiding in the village,” the resident, Rignyu Solange, told the news outlet. “I want the perpetrators of this act to be severely punished.”
A witness told Al Jazeera that a total of nine houses were burned.
According to AFP, the Movement for the Rebirth of Cameroon, one of two main opposition groups in Cameroon, declared in a statement that the “dictatorial regime [and] the supreme head of the security and defense forces are chiefly responsible for these crimes.”
Efi Tembon, a ministry leader who fled Cameroon in 2018 after he spoke to the U.S. Congress about rights violations committed by the Cameroonian military, also called for the military to be held accountable in a Facebook post.
Sources told Tembon that a pregnant woman, her husband, and their five children were among those killed in Ntumbo. Meanwhile, sources added that a grandmother and all her grandchildren were among the dead.
“Some of the victims were burned by soldiers,” Tembon wrote. “I have seen some of the gruesome pictures. How can the world be silent as women and children face such a terrible horror?”
Cameroon Army spokesperson Atonfack Guemo disputed the narrative. According to CNN, Guemo said that only one woman and her four children were killed because they got caught in the crossfire between separatists and security forces.
Guemo said that a team of six soldiers killed seven separatists. However, Guemo reasoned that houses were set on fire because fuel containers were struck by gunfire as fighting continued into the night.
"This caused the death of five persons; a woman and four children, contrary to social media reports," Guemo asserted.
As a result of military operations in the Northwest region, the U.N. estimates that as many as 5,500 people were displaced in less than a week during mid-December.
Over 670,000 people are internally displaced within Cameroon, while over 60,000 have fled to neighboring Nigeria, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Cameroon began prosecutions last year against seven soldiers who were seen in a video that drew widespread outrage online. The video showed soldiers murdering two women and two children.
Cameroon was added to Open Doors USA’s World Watch List of countries where Christian persecution is most severe in 2020. In 2019, two Bible translators were killed in their homes during overnight attacks on separatist-supporting communities.
Last November, President Trump stripped Cameroon of its trade benefits over accusations that the military has committed human rights abuses against civilians.
Cameroon was removed as a beneficiary of the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The 2000 legislation assists countries in Sub-Saharan Africa by giving them privileged access to the U.S. market.
“I am taking this step because I have determined that the government of Cameroon currently engages in gross violations of internationally recognized human rights, contravening the eligibility requirements of section 104 of the (African Growth and Opportunity Act),” Trump wrote a letter to Congress at the time.