Authorities in Cameroon have admitted that soldiers were involved in the killing of three women and 10 children in a mid-February attack in the civil war-stricken Northwest province in which 21 people were killed and several homes were pillaged.
After initially claiming that allegations of soldiers being complicit in the massacre in Ngarbuh village on Feb. 13 and Feb. 14 were false, the Cameroonian government announced last Tuesday that three soldiers are on trial for their role in the killing of innocent civilians and burning of homes in the majority Christian Anglophone region.
The government released the findings of a joint commission of inquiry investigation launched following reports that soldiers teamed up with Fulani militants in a nighttime attack that was said to have claimed the lives of at least 13 children and one pregnant woman.
“Following an exchange of gunfire, during which five terrorists were killed, and many weapons seized, the detachment discovered that three women and 10 children had died because of its actions,” a lengthy statement released by President Paul Biya’s communication unit reads.
According to the statement, Major Nyiangono Ze Charles Eric of the 52nd Motorized Infantry Battalion in Nkambe ordered a reconnaissance mission on Feb. 12 to Ngarbuh, a village of the Ndu subdivision of the don Mantung area that is known to be where “secessionist terrorists regrouped.”
Throughout the English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions, some farming communities are supportive of rebel groups that began fighting for independence in 2017 because they feel underrepresented by the French-speaking central government. Over the last few years, fighting has spread across the Anglophone regions with thousands being killed and some churches seized.
In Ngarbuh, the government claimed that rebels were engaged in “all sorts of abuses against the local population,” such as cattle rustling, rape, assaults. The government claims that such abuses warranted intervention by the military.
On Feb. 13 around 10 p.m., a team of soldiers headed by Sgt. Baba Guida left for their base for Ngarbuh. But according to the government, the men stopped along the way “to enlist 17 members of a local vigilante committee.”
While the local vigilante committee has not been identified, a Human Rights Watch investigation suggests that armed ethnic Fulani were involved in the attack. The Christian Post reported on allegations last year that government actors have encouraged and even armed ethnic Fulani to carry out attacks against separatist-supporting farming communities. Such attacks claimed the lives of two Bible translators last year.
In Ngarbuh, the team split up once they entered the village.
The government’s report said that Guida, along with Gendarme Sanding Cyrille, Pfc. Haranga and 10 members of the “vigilante group” launched an attack in Ngarbhu neighborhood No. 3 “based on information provided by a repented terrorist and farmer from the area.”
After engaging in gunfire, the government claims that the soldiers tried to “conceal the facts” that they had killed innocent women and children “by starting fires.” Upon returning to the military base, Guida was accused of filing a “deliberately biased” report to superiors.
According to the investigation’s findings, it was Guida’s initial report on which the government had previously issued a statement calling the allegations against the soldiers false.
The government said there will be disciplinary proceedings against Eric and all soldiers involved.
Arrests orders have been issued for Guida, Cyrille and Haranga, who will be subject to the Yaounde military tribunal. The government's statement claims that the members of the vigilante community involved in the attack are being tracked down and have not been identified.
In addition to filing false reports, the government accuses Guida of involving armed civilians in a military operation, failing to control his troops and ordering the destruction of homes. Eric is accused of failing to properly supervise the operation despite knowing how “sensitive” the Ngarbuh area is.
Arrests have been ordered for Guida, Cyrille, Haranga and 10 members of the vigilante community who have not been identified and need to be tracked down.
Biya ordered the corpses of the victims to be exhumed and given a proper burial at the cost of the state. The presidency also ordered the state to pay compensation and indemnities to the families of the victims.
“[The president] reiterates his firm instructions to the relevant officials and the various levels of the hierarchy of the Defense and Security Forces to ensure, with increased determination, that they always perform their duty with professionalism, they particularly ensure the protection of civilians and see to it that allegations of any exactions are systematically investigated and where necessary properly punished,” the statement adds.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement that the government’s findings are the “first step in establishing the truth around the killings of civilians by government forces.” However, HRW notes that the government’s release diverges “in significant detail from the facts of the events at Ngarbuh established by Human Rights Watch and corroborated by others, including the U.N.”
HRW found that members of the Rapid Intervention Battalion and armed ethnic Fulani killed 21 civilians in addition to burning five homes, beating residents and pillaging "scores of other properties."
"The armed Fulani may be the 'local vigilance groups' referred to in the government news release," a HRW update contends.
HRW believes that the government’s report at least establishes “that Cameroonian soldiers attempted to cover up the truth around the killings and includes a government pledge to work with human rights organizations.”
“The commission’s findings into the Ngarbuh massacre, while flawed, are an important first step toward justice for these serious crimes,” HRW Central Africa Director Lewis Mudge said in a statement. “But this report should not be a stand-alone action. A more in-depth investigation is needed to establish a clear timeline of events and to identify all those responsible, including anyone further up the chain of command, for the purposes of prosecuting them.”
The U.S. Embassy in Yaounde tweeted that it's “pleased to see Cameroon take steps toward transparency.”
“We welcome the news it plans to hold to account those suspected of carrying out this action and trying to cover it up,” the tweet reads.
The Ambazonia Governing Council, a separatist group that has declared independence, is not so pleased with the findings.
“Accepting culpability in Ngarbuh while presenting false justification of the systematic killing of civilians is a political masquerade,” Ambazonia Governing Council leader Ayaba Cho Lucas said, according to Radio France Internationale.
Cameroon was added to Open Doors USA’s annual World Watch List of 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted in 2020.