In most of its operations in the Northwest Region of Cameroon, soldiers have, in practice, made it almost a norm that whenever they carry out a mission in a community, they must leave smoke billowing from some homes.
Though the practice has been there ever since the Anglophone Crisis started, along the line, it reduced. But since the second part of last year 2022, soldiers operating in the Northwest Region have taken it to another level – not only by burning houses, but other property too.
The practice that had become a disturbing trend has led to the destruction of entire villages and the partial destruction of others. In May 2019, the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, with Headquarters in Buea, documented over 206 villages in the two Anglophone Regions burnt down by soldiers in their war campaign against separatist fighters.
This was just two years into the crisis. Now, the crisis is in its sixth year, and the practice is still on, leaving thousands homeless and foodless, as many store their foods in the homes that are burnt all together with everything in it.
Even today, March 29, 2023, as the article was being written, news came in from Kumbo, the second largest town in the Northwest Region, that houses and shops had again been lit with fire by soldiers.
Images showed smoke rising from homes and little assets and businesses owned by the locals, whose lives have never been the same since the war for and against secession started in Anglophone Regions. In total, the March 29 destruction in Kumbo, occasioned by the fact that separatist fighters attacked a military convoy, led to the seizure and burning of 11 commercial bikes, one taxi, four buildings, and 33 businesses in Mveh, Kumbo’s commercial capital.
Witnesses said soldiers turned on the population because separatists targeted them with a local explosive device on an armoured car, and another attack using an RPG. A civilian caught in the gunfire was also killed.
Generally, soldiers always accuse locals of either sheltering separatist fighters, or of not collaborating with them to fight the separatists. They then follow up with burning the houses of locals in a blanket punishment style. This is allegedly done to cause fear among the locals so that when they are afraid of their houses being burnt, they will be forced to work with the military.
This is very risky for the locals, especially as they are at the mercy of the separatists, as soldiers only come and go during missions, but separatists are always around the corner or in the next village.
Persons suspected of working or aiding government soldiers are always hunted and maimed or killed by the fighters, and the soldiers never compensate their families.
On Saturday, December 17, 2022, a military raid was carried out in Yer, a village in Bui Division, which was presumably to get separatist targets. But soldiers set ablaze at least 10 houses. Apart from leaving several persons homeless, a lot of property and food were also burnt down. During the raid, three civilians were also killed in the process.
On December 24, 2022, the Cameroon military carried out a mission that was supposed to be a raid against separatist fighters operating in Nkii, a village in Oku, Bui Division. During the operation, soldiers burnt down 54 houses, and 15 commercial bikes. Witnesses said six civilians were killed, alongside two separatist fighters. Some civilians were also injured during the operation.
On January 15, 2023, a Cameroon military operation in the villages of Mensai and Mbah in Bui Division ended with heavy destruction of property. During the mission, soldiers seized and burnt several commercial bikes used as a means of transport in the villages. The soldiers also burnt homes, and reportedly took some civilians hostage, forcing them to identify targets in the soldiers’ hunt for separatists.
On February 01, 2023, Cameroon soldiers in the Northwest region carried out an operation that was reportedly meant to target separatist fighters led by separatist Commander and self-styled ‘FM No Pity’ in Ndop.
During the mission, the soldiers failed to get the separatist leader and his fighters. Soldiers instead turned on the local population in Bamunka village, killing two civilians and burning several houses and properties in the process.
At about 4 AM on Saturday, February 18, 2023, soldiers raided the village of Mensai in Jakiri Subdivision, in search of a separatist commander of a group named “Black Warriors” operating under the “Bui Unity Warriors’”, a separatist coalition group.
After failing to capture the separatist commander, soldiers resorted to burning houses and commercial bikes belonging to locals who are mainly youths. They also arrested villagers on claims that they are aiding and hiding separatist fighters in their communities.
On March 13, 2023, separatist fighters operating in Jakiri Subdivision planted an explosive that reportedly killed three government soldiers in Ngukov, a community in Sop village, in Jakiri Subdivision.
In retaliation, backup soldiers who came in from the Sub-divisional headquarters, Jakiri, went on a rampage in the village, burning houses of civilians whom they said did not inform them that explosives were planted on the road. The burning of houses happened just at the beginning of the rainy season when people without houses can hardly survive the cold weather and rains.
These and many more are all instances where government soldiers have resorted to unjustified burning of houses in the Region, in their war effort against separatists.
Meanwhile, most separatist fighters are youngsters who do not own any houses or stationed property. As such, the burning of the houses does not hurt them; it rather hurts locals and communities that are already suffering tremendously as a result of the war.
Most of the wanton acts by the Cameroon military violate several international legal instruments to which Cameroon is party. The ICC’s Statute, Art. 8 (2) (a) (IV) outlaws the “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”.
Article 85(3) (a), and Article 51(2) of the Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, relating to the Protection of Victims of Armed Conflicts (Protocol I), 8 June 1977 outlaws the Intentional launching of “an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated”.
In its Article 3, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives everyone the “right to life, liberty and the security of person”. This right to life has been taken away from several persons who are arbitrarily killed, either intentionally, or because attacks are launched in areas with many civilians exposing and increasing chances of civilian casualty. In October 2022, Human Rights Watch reported that over 4,000 civilians have been killed in the war. In its recent statistics the International Crisis group said the crisis said the crisis has claimed over 6000 lives.
Separatist leaders like Ikome Sako of the Ambazonia Interim Government claims that over 40,000 civilians have been killed in the war.
In a statement condemning the wanton burning of houses and villages, Rights Defender and president of the Centre of Human Rights and Democracy in Africa had stated that, “This act of burning villages is in breach of classical common article 3 to the Four Geneva Convention 1949 and the Additional Protocol II to the same Convention dealing with the non-international conflicts. Also, the burning of villages is in breach of national and international human rights norms and the host of other laws ».
To understand the rationale behind the burning of the houses during such operations, The Post reached out to the Senior Divisional Officer for Bui, but he would not respond or comment. The Post further reached out to the spokesperson of Cameroon’s Ministry of Defence, Captain Cyrille Serge Atonfack Guemo. He too did comment on the issue, after receiving and reading the request for a comment.
By Andrew Nsoseka, JADE