Five years after the disappearance of more than 130 people in the Far North, families still looking for truth and justice.
Cameroon: “We looked for him everywhere, we need to be given answers, so we can mourn.”
Five years ago, during a cordon-and-search operation in two villages in the Far North, the Cameroonian army, without evidence, arrested more than 200 men on suspicion of being members of Boko Haram. Locked up for the night in inhumane and degrading conditions, some drank their sweat to quench their thirst and stay alive. Survivors say only about 40 survived. The rest are still unaccounted for. We must now break the silence and demand that the authorities provide an explanation to the families of the disappeared.
Note: the list of 130 confirmed disappeared was compiled by Amnesty International based on statements made by family members and identity documents in their possession. The real number, including those who did not have identity documents or who did not live in the two villages, is much higher according to survivors and witnesses.
In the small cell measuring 12 square meters, the more than 100 men and boys, piled on top of each other for several hours, started to breathe with difficulty. Their breathing became irregular and shallow. Some breaths seemed more like long desperate groans. Then the first man collapsed with exhaustion. It was as if this roused the other detainees from the listlessness into which they had plunged. They started to bang against the cell’s only door and, with the energy they were still able to muster, they called for help, for fresh air or for a drop of water. They were treated only with contempt. The men continued to slump to the ground, one after another. A father, his son, his son-in-law…
It was Saturday 27 December 2014. While the world relaxed and enjoyed the end-of-year festivities, a silent drama played out in the Far North of Cameroon, unseen and far from any cameras. As night fell, the men and boys locked up in two cells at the gendarmerie in Maroua, the biggest city in the Far North, collapsed one after another. According to survivors, only about 20 people saw the light of the following day. The numbers were similar in the next cell. Two days after their arrest, 45 of them were driven to the civilian prison in Maroua, more than 70 km from Magdémé and Doublé, the villages where they lived in the department of Mayo-Sava. Numb and weak, they were taken away without really understanding what was happening to them and without the strength to react to the dramatic chain of events. These 45 men did not yet know that they were the only known survivors of a terrible search operation that resulted in the forced disappearance of more than 130 men and boys.
How was it possible to make more than 130 people disappear five years ago in the Far North of Cameroon, silently and anonymously?
In 2014, the armed group Boko Haram, founded in neighboring Nigeria launched its first attacks in Cameroon. In response, the Cameroonian government ordered a massive deployment of its security forces in the Far North region, the epicenter of these attacks by Boko Haram. The local population was soon caught in the crossfire between Boko Haram’s attacks and the violent reprisals of an army that sometimes used the same methods of murder, destruction and illegal executions as the armed group it was supposed to be protecting the population against. Security operations in northern Cameroon were punctuated with serious breaches of international humanitarian law and human rights violations.
Magdémé and Doublé
The villages of Magdémé and Doublé are located in the department of Mayo-Sava, in the Far North region, an area particularly exposed to attacks by Boko Haram because of its proximity to Nigeria. On the morning of 27 December 2014, the first shots rang out as the men in these two villages were returning from prayers at the mosque. The sudden nature of the attack made them think it was Boko Haram. The frightened residents hid in their homes. But it was not Boko Haram this time. In reprisal for a previous Boko Haram attack, the army, police and gendarmerie conducted a joint search operation in the two villages.
This was the most serious search operation documented by Amnesty International in Cameroon. The security forces arrested more than 200 men and boys on that day. They were arrested without any legal basis or evidence, but simply on suspicion of having contact with Boko Haram (and partly because they were Kanouris and therefore belonged to the same ethnic group as Boko Haram’s founders). Without the slightest understanding of what was happening, the men were forced to undress and manhandled before being piled into trucks like cattle and taken to the Maroua gendarmerie. At no time on this long journey did anyone explain to these 200 men why they had been arrested and treated in this way. In the same operation, the security forces killed eight people, including a child, burned down more than 70 buildings and stole or destroyed many possessions.
Locked in the stifling atmosphere of these two cells, in inhumane and degrading conditions, the men tried to hang on and survive the long night. Exhausted, some drank their sweat to quench their thirst and stay alive. Survivors say only about 20 survived in each of the two cells.
130 disappeared, 5 years of silence
Break the silence and demand that the authorities provide families with an explanation.
Held to account by Amnesty International members all over the world and a handful of organisations and courageous human rights defenders in Cameroon, the government claimed the story was a pack of lies. Later, on 13 March 2016, the government acknowledged that at least 25 men died in custody on the evening of their arrest in Magdémé and Doublé. It did not, however, reveal their identities or place of burial. The government also acknowledged that 45 other men were taken to and registered at Maroua prison on the following day. All the other remain unaccounted for. The youngest was 12 years old and the oldest was 60 years old. Their names were Ali, Youssoufa, Mohamed, Ibrahim, Boukar… Anonymous to the world, they do however have faces, a history, families and children who have been longing for answers for five years. The more than 130 men and boys from the villages of Magdémé and Doublé have not been seen since 27 December 2014. We must recognise their humanity and the dignity that they were denied on 27 December 2014.
5 years of impunity
It is difficult for the families of the disappeared to understand what happened on 27 December. They need answers.
In 2015, a presidential decree dismissed Colonel Charles Zé Onguéné, who was head of the gendarmerie in the Far North at the time of the event. Although an inquiry was opened and Colonel Zé Onguéné was charged with “negligence and breach of custody law”, to this day nobody knows whether any progress has been made in the proceedings against him. In March 2019, he was appointed adviser to the ministry of defense. One more kick in the teeth for the victims.
In Maroua, the 42 survivors1 of the search operation conducted on 27 December 2014 were released in July 2017. The authorities acknowledged they were not guilty of the crimes of membership of an armed group (i.e. Boko Haram), secession and murder but said they were guilty of rebellion. Their “freedom” is however relative, as they look to a future that does not look very encouraging.
For them and for the more than 130 disappeared, there remains the fight against oblivion. And the exhausting quest for truth and justice.1 Three of the 45 men taken to Maroua prison died in detention.