Cameroon: Survivors of Military Assault Await Justice

(Nairobi) – An attack by Cameroonian soldiers on March 1, 2020 has come to light in which soldiers raped at least 20 women, including four with disabilities, arrested 35 men, and killed one man, Human Rights Watch said today. The attack on the village of Ebam in the South-West region was one of the worst by Cameroon’s army in recent years.

The soldiers also burned one home, looted scores of properties, and severely beat the men they took to a military base. Based on information obtained by Human Rights Watch, there has been no effective investigation, and no one has been held accountable for the crimes.

“Sexual violence and torture are heinous crimes that governments have an obligation to immediately, effectively, and independently investigate, and to bring those responsible to justice,” said Ida Sawyer, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “One year on, survivors of the Ebam attack are desperate for justice and reparations, and they live with the disturbing knowledge that those who abused them are walking free and have faced no consequences.”

Cameroon’s North-West and South-West regions have been rife with violence since late 2016, as armed separatists seek independence for the country’s minority Anglophone regions.

Human Rights Watch conducted telephone interviews between August 1 and January 5, 2021 with 20 rape survivors, four men who were arrested and beaten, four witnesses to the attack, two relatives of the man who was killed, a medical doctor who screened the rape survivors, two aid workers who helped the victims, and two United Nations officials with knowledge of the incident. Human Rights Watch also consulted confidential reports by an international nongovernmental organization and the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, a Cameroonian rights group based in Buea, South-West region, which corroborated the findings.

Human Rights Watch shared its findings with senior officials at the Cameroonian Presidency in a January 13 letter, requesting answers to specific questions. Cameroonian officials have yet to respond.

Witnesses said that over 50 soldiers entered Ebam, in Manyu division, in the South-West region, at about 3 a.m. on March 1, 2020, on foot leaving their vehicles in the outskirts. They broke into almost all the 75 homes in the village, looting money and other items, and dragging men out. Some soldiers rounded up men in the village center, while others sexually assaulted the women, including four with disabilities, mostly in their homes.

“Five masked soldiers entered my home,” a 40-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch. “It was dark, and I was alone. They searched the house and stole my phone and money. One of them abused me. He said: ‘If you don’t have sex with me, I will kill you!’ I was too afraid to say or do anything. After the rape, I ran into the bush where I spent two months. I am still upset and traumatized.”

Soldiers who conducted the abusive operation in Ebam on March 1, 2020 arrived there on vehicles, and parked them at the outskirts of the village, on the other side of the river shown in the picture. © private, Ebam, South-West region, Cameroon, October 2020

None of the rape survivors interviewed could get post-rape medical care in the immediate aftermath of the attack due to a range of obstacles, including displacement, lack of medical facilities, the cost of travel to such facilities, the cost of medical care, and fear of stigma and rejection. Some had medical care, such as screening for sexually transmitted infections, for the first time only in late July and mid-August, or even later.

A doctor who screened the survivors in August said that women described symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress and depression: fear, anxiety, sleeplessness, and an inability to complete daily tasks. Rape survivors said they are struggling to rebuild their lives and provide for themselves and their families.

Witnesses said that at the end of the three-hour attack, soldiers took at least 36 men to a military base in Besongabang, about eight kilometers away, where the soldiers beat the men severely and repeatedly, amounting to torture. The soldiers detained the men at the base for a day then transferred them to the gendarmerie brigade in Mamfe, the main city in Manyu division.

“The soldiers put us on a military truck and took us to their camp,” a 25-year-old man said. “My hands were tied behind my back. When we reached the camp, soldiers beat me up. They hit my legs very strongly; I still have scars.”

Four of the men held at the military base in Besongabang said that soldiers removed 34-year-old Ojong Thomas Ebot from the cell where they were held, and that he never returned. They believed that the soldiers later killed Ojong in the forest surrounding Ebam.

Six other witnesses said that, at about 7 a.m. they saw a military truck coming back to Ebam and leaving shortly after. Residents discovered Ojong’s body less than one hour later. Two of Ojong’s relatives said they buried him the same day.

A 28-year-old student and family member said: “They brought the body home. I saw three gunshot wounds on it: one in the head, which was the worst, one in the chest, one in the elbow. The head was almost destroyed. It was painful to see.”

Human Rights Watch reviewed photographs showing the exact location where Ojong was buried in Ebam and corroborated them with accounts from family members and residents of the village.

Witnesses said that the military operation was a reprisal attack to punish civilians suspected of collaborating with and harboring armed separatist fighters. Soldiers who raped women also implied in their verbal abuse that they were carrying out the rapes in part as a form of punishment for any presumed affiliation with armed separatist fighters.

A 28-year-old woman who was raped and witnessed the attack told Human Rights Watch: “The military asked me and other villagers: ‘Where are you keeping the amba [separatists]?’ We said we did not know where the amba [separatists] were. So, they [the soldiers] said: ‘The next time we come here, we’ll shoot everyone if you don’t show us the amba [separatists] now.’”

The Ebam attack occurred 16 days after soldiers in Ngarbuh, North-West region massacred 21 civilians, including a pregnant woman and 13 children, prompting a public outcry in Cameroon and beyond.

The attack has gone largely unreported for a year, due in part to the stigma and fear of reprisal which discourages survivors of sexual violence from speaking out about what they experienced. Underreporting by survivors also suggests that incidents of sexual violence by soldiers is probably much higher than the documented cases, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented widespread human rights violations by members of the Cameroonian security forces in the Anglophone regions since 2017, including torture and sexual violence. There has been little to no accountability for military abuses in the English-speaking regions over the past four years, and atrocities by members of national armed forces remain largely unpunished.

The Cameroonian government has legal obligations under international law to ensure that those responsible for sexual violence and other grave crimes such as murder, torture, and inhuman treatment are investigated and prosecuted. The government also has an obligation to provide reparations, such as compensation, livelihood support, or access to long-term medical and psychological health care for survivors of such attacks.

“Cameroonian authorities should urgently conduct an independent investigation into the Ebam attack, with support from the United Nations and the African Union, and make its findings public,” Sawyer said. “Ensuring justice and reparations will be essential for deterring future attacks and helping survivors heal.”

For more information on the Ebam attack, including statements from survivors, please see below.

Cameroon’s Cycles of Violence

Over the past four years, Cameroon’s Anglophone regions have been caught in a deadly cycle of violence that led to a major humanitarian crisis, with almost 700,000 people displaced and three million in need of aid. Human Rights Watch estimates that violence has claimed over 3,500 lives since late 2016.

The crisis has been characterized by widespread human rights abuses by both government forces and armed separatists. Security forces have killed civilians, razed hundreds of homes, sexually assaulted women, and arbitrarily arrested and tortured hundreds of alleged separatist fighters. Armed separatists have also killed civilians, attacked humanitarian workers and schools, kidnapped hundreds of people, including students and teachers, destroyed homes, and tortured those perceived as opponents.

In March 2020, the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces (SOCADEF), a separatist group, called for a ceasefire as the Covid-19 pandemic was declared – a move welcomed by the spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General. On June 16, government officials held peace talks in the capital, Yaoundé, with the leaders of the Interim Government, a major separatist group led by Sisiku Julius Ayuk Tabe, who had previously been sentenced to life in prison and is currently in a high security prison in Yaoundé. However, neither the call for a ceasefire nor the peace talks have ended the violence against civilians.

On September 10, 2019 amid increasing violence and following sustained international pressure, President Paul Biya called for a “national dialogue,” a series of nationwide discussions aimed at addressing the Anglophone crisis. The dialogue ended with the adoption of a special status for the two Anglophone regions and the release of hundreds of people arrested in connection with the unrest in the North-West and South-West regions.

On October 24, 2020, gunmen stormed a school in Kumba, South-West region, and opened fire in a classroom, killing seven children and injuring 13 others.

On January 10, army soldiers killed at least nine civilians in Mautu village, South-West region. The dead included a woman and a child. The soldiers also looted scores of homes and threatened residents.

Sexual Violence in Ebam

Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 women, ranging in age from 23 to 42, who said they were raped by soldiers during the attack in Ebam on March 1. Human Rights Watch corroborated their accounts with a medical doctor who screened and treated them, and a humanitarian worker from an international group that provided psychological counseling and material assistance to the survivors.

Rape appears to have formed a systematic part of the military attack on Ebam and was mostly committed in homes during door-to-door searches.

“One masked soldier broke into my home where I was with my little daughter,” a 23-year-old student said. “He pointed a gun at me, searched everything and everywhere. He spoke French to me. I speak little French. He ordered me to get undressed and raped me. He said I should remain silent and not shout; otherwise, he would kill me. I was afraid and allowed him to have an intercourse with me because he threatened me. When he finished with me, he took my money, my phone, my food and drinks, and left. I ran into the bush where I spent two weeks.”

A 45-year-old woman, who has a physical disability and has difficulties hearing and speaking, said she was raped outside the church where she had gone with her daughter:

It was about 5:30 a.m. I had woken up early to go to the church with my 18-year-old daughter … Two soldiers came inside the church. One took me by my hand and pulled me outside. I started crying. My daughter was also crying ... One of them removed my dress and raped me on the ground, in the grass. He abused me for over 15 minutes. He searched my clothes, took my phone and money, and left.

At least three other women with disabilities, including physical, hearing, and visual, were raped.

A 27-year-old woman said:

I have a physical disability due to an accident. I cannot walk well. One of my legs is bad. When the military came, they arrested my husband and took him outside. Two of them remained in the house and forced me in the bedroom. I was wearing just a pagne [cloth covering] around my chest. Both of them raped me. ‘If you alert anyone, we will kill you,’ they said. I opposed some resistance and in the struggling I hit my bad leg against the bed. It swelled and hurt.

Soldiers who raped the women also implied in their verbal abuse that they were carrying out the rapes in part as a form of punishment for any presumed affiliation with armed separatist fighters. “Before he [the soldier] raped me, he asked: ‘Where are the amba boys [separatists]?’ I replied I didn’t know,” a 45-year-old woman told Human Rights Watch. “Then, he said: ‘You are the wife of one of those amba boys, aren’t you?’ I replied that my husband was not a fighter.”

A 30-year-old farmer said two soldiers broke into her home, looking for her husband and armed separatists: “They pulled me, took me to the bedroom. One of them asked me in French: ‘Where is your husband? Where are the ambas?’ I replied that my husband was dead. So, one pushed me and pointed a gun at me. He cornered me. There was no way I could shout or move. He forced himself on me and raped me. I was afraid. I cried.”

At least three women said that they were raped by more than one soldier. One of them, a 35-year-old teacher, said that two soldiers sexually assaulted her at home: “They were both in army uniform and had guns. They spoke French and broken English. They asked me where my husband was, and I replied I didn’t know. They were upset they could not find him, so they revenged on me. They undressed me. I was afraid of their weapons. They raped me, both of them. Then, they stole my phone.”

Late Access to Medical Care and Psychosocial Support

Sexual violence has altered life for all the women interviewed. None of them could access post-rape medical care in the immediate aftermath of the attack due to a range of obstacles, including displacement, lack of medical facilities, the cost of travel to such facilities, the cost of medical care, and fear of stigma and rejection.

A 35-year-old survivor and mother of eight children said in late August: “After the rape, I took few things and ran away to the nearby bush, where I spent several weeks. I didn’t seek any medical assistance because there was no way I could go to the hospital in the bush. The first time I saw a doctor was three weeks ago.”

A 56-year-old farmer whose wife was raped said in late August: “When my wife told me [about the rape], she was traumatized, but I could not take her to the hospital. I had no money. We fled to the bush out of fear of another attack. My wife was only provided with some assistance recently, when a doctor came and tested her for HIV.

Some rape survivors had access to medical care, psychological support, and material assistance only in late July and mid-August, five months after the attack, due to the intervention of an international humanitarian organization that learned about the mass rape in mid-July. A medical doctor who screened the survivors and conducted blood tests to verify whether they suffered from any sexually transmitted diseases, said:

When I was informed about the mass rape, it was already too late. Nevertheless, I went to Ebam in mid-August and screened the women who said they were sexually assaulted. I conducted medical exams and collected their records. Blood tests revealed that at least two had syphilis. I cannot tell whether this is because of the rape. But what I know for sure is that the survivors are still traumatized.

Two rape survivors reported physical injuries and illness after the assault. A 28-year-old student said: “As a result of the rape, I had physical pain. My abdomen was hurting, and I had headaches for a while.” Human Rights Watch also found that the rapes caused dire mental health consequences. The doctor who screened the survivors in August said that women described symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress and depression: fear and anxiety, sleeplessness, and an inability to complete daily tasks.

A 35-year-old survivor said: “I don’t really know how I feel. I think I feel empty and sad.” A 30-year-old farmer described feeling upset and anxious: “My mind is disturbed; I have trouble sleeping and concentrating. When I think about what happened, I don’t feel fine.” A 27-year-old woman said: “I feel bad. I am traumatized. Every time I see the military, I shake; it reminds me of what happened, it brings back bad memories.”

Unable to resume work or other activities for their sustenance, rape survivors said they are struggling to rebuild their lives and provide for themselves and their families.

A 28-year-old survivor and mother of four children described how the longer-term impact of the sexual violence on her mental health had made it impossible for her to find work, even though she needed it more than ever as the soldiers also looted all her cash: “I am psychologically disturbed. I am stressed because I have no money. I don’t know what I can offer to my children. I do nothing for a living. Nobody supports me at the moment.”

The stigma associated with sexual assault caused some women to feel embarrassed and ashamed. Fear of stigma has also prevented some survivors from disclosing rape even to close friends and relatives and from seeking assistance. Women said that husbands or partners had blamed or rejected them, and community members mocked them after rape.

A 34-year-old survivor said she has been taunted by members of her community: “Villagers know I was raped, and they mock me. Sometimes, when I walk, people point fingers at me. They mock me instead of consoling me.”

A 30-year-old farmer with six children told Human Rights Watch that her husband was disappointed when she told him she had been raped: “He was upset. He said I should have escaped. I explained I could not escape; there was no way I could resist or shout. He said he cannot sleep with me anymore. In the village, I am stigmatized. People mock me. When I pass by, they look at me and say: ‘Look at this one who was raped!’”

Mass Arrests, Beatings at Military Base and Detention at Gendarmerie Brigade

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that soldiers entered Ebam, went house to house, looted money and other valuable items, and pulled 36 men out of their homes. They were taken to the village center, where the soldiers threatened them.

A 53-year-old farmer who was among those arrested said:

The soldiers did not shoot; they entered quietly and took all of us by surprise. Few managed to flee. The whole village was taken hostage. They broke into all the homes, including mine. They were four, well-armed. I was home with my wife. They stole my Android phone and 150,000 XAF [US$271]. They pulled me outside and brought me to the middle of the village where other men had been rounded up. We were all forced to sit on the ground, tied up with a nylon rope, in groups of three to four. They threatened us and said: ‘Today, you are finished. You will not come back to your village.’ Some of us were screaming and crying.

Four of the men said that at about 6 a.m., soldiers put them and 32 other men on military trucks and drove them to a military base in Besongabang, about eight kilometers from Ebam. The four men said that soldiers administered beatings amounting to torture to them and others at the military base to force them to admit to supporting armed separatist groups.

A 42-year-old former detainee said: “I was tortured four times. They beat me with a fan belt from a car. When they were beating me, they told me to speak the truth about the amba boys [separatists]. I replied I didn’t know anything.”

A 53-year-old man said:

At the military camp, we were seriously tortured. The military beat us with their hands and other objects. I was beaten with a big rubber chip on my back, buttocks, and legs. I was hit many times. While they beat us, they accused us of sheltering the amba boys [separatists]. We had no answers to give about the amba, so they beat us even more strongly. I had bruises on my back and buttocks for over two weeks and was in pain.

On March 1, the detainees were transferred to the gendarmerie brigade in Mamfe, about 10 kilometers from Besongabang, where gendarmes took their statements. They were all released between March 4 and 6, following payments ranging from 25,000 XAF (US$45) to 35,000 XAF (US$63).