23 Dec Massacre of 21 villagers leads to rare trial for soldiers in Cameroon
Travelling by motorbike, car and bus, Taah Ali journeyed on bad roads for two days to reach Cameroon’s capital. He had a story to tell: a story about a horrific massacre that had killed 21 people in his village.
His journey left him exhausted. Sitting in a military court in Yaoundé last week on the first day of a landmark trial, he sometimes needed to walk out of the courtroom to recover from the fatigue. But his testimony, when it comes, could be pivotal for justice in his country.
Mr. Ali is a key witness in the trial of two soldiers and a paramilitary police officer who allegedly participated in the Ngarbuh massacre – one of many atrocities in Cameroon’s prolonged conflict over separatism in its Anglophone regions. His relatives were among the dead and injured in the massacre.
Human rights groups see the Ngarbuh trial as a vital move in tackling impunity among Cameroon’s security forces. “Survivors and family members of those murdered in Ngarbuh are finally a step closer to getting justice,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The conflict in Cameroon’s anglophone regions is often described as one of the world’s most neglected crises. More than 3,000 people have been killed and about 700,000 have been forced to flee their homes since the crisis began in 2016.
Reports last February revealed that Cameroonian security forces and an armed militia had killed 21 people in the Ngarbuh massacre, including 13 children and a pregnant woman. It was one of the worst atrocities since the conflict began.
The government initially denied the reports, denouncing them as “terrorist propaganda” about an “unfortunate accident.” But after international pressure, it admitted in April that there had been a massacre and a military cover-up. An inquiry found that the military had tried to suppress the truth by burning homes and filing a false report.
“Ngarbuh was not an isolated case, but part of a long history of military abuses in the anglophone regions,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“Impunity has been a key driver of the Anglophone crisis and there has been little to no accountability for serious crimes committed by both government forces and armed separatist fighters.”
For their alleged roles in the Ngarbuh massacre, the three members of Cameroon’s security forces have been charged with murder, destruction, arson, disobeying orders and violence against a pregnant woman.
“We expect that justice should be done for those who suffered the brutal killings of their family members,” said Ernest Gbaka, one of the lawyers for the victims and their families.
If the trial at the military tribunal is fair, it will be “crucial in helping to end the cycles of violence and impunity that have plagued the anglophone regions for the last four years,” Ms. Allegrozzi said.
After the arduous journey from his village, Mr. Ali was not called to testify last week at the opening of the trial, which focused largely on procedural issues. The trial was adjourned until Jan. 21, so he will be obliged to make the long trek to the capital again.
His difficulties in travelling to the military court are just one example of the challenges facing the trial. Several witnesses have reportedly gone into hiding because of threats from members of the security forces. Other witnesses might find it too expensive or dangerous to attend the trial, Human Rights Watch says.
Another issue is the lack of criminal charges against senior security-force commanders. Those facing charges could be low-ranking “scapegoats” for senior officers who ordered the attack, according to lawyers for the families of the victims.
In addition, 17 members of a vigilante group and a former separatist fighter have been accused of involvement in the Ngarbuh massacre. The fighter was arrested but fled from custody. A military prosecutor told the court last week that the state has been unable to identify the vigilantes.
“We expect that those who gave the orders, those who were there and those who masterminded the killings of these innocent souls should be brought to court, so that we all understand exactly what happened,” said Richard Tamfu, another lawyer for the victims and their families.
“The whole world was very touched by the tragedy of what happened in Ngarbuh on Feb. 14,” he told The Globe. “We expect a fair hearing and justice for the people of Ngarbuh.”
In one of the few earlier examples of a state prosecution for an atrocity in Cameroon, five soldiers were convicted by a military tribunal last August for the killing of two women and two children in the far north of the country. The killing took place in 2015, but was revealed by a shocking video that went viral internationally in 2018.
The government initially denied the killings but later arrested seven soldiers. Human rights groups criticized the tribunal for holding its trial behind closed doors. Four of the soldiers were sentenced to 10 years in prison, while the fifth was sentenced to two years.
The Globe Mail