Rights groups in Cameroon have accused the military of torching scores of homes this week of suspected separatist supporters, leaving hundreds of people homeless this holiday season. The military has denied burning any civilian houses.
Cameroon civil society groups say hundreds of people rendered homeless by this week’s attacks are seeking refuge in churches.
Some of the homeless are living with relatives and well-wishers within their community according to the Roman Catholic Church in Cameroon’s restive Northwest region.
Rights groups, civilians and members of the church have been sharing videos of at least 12 houses burned on Thursday in Yer, a village in Jakiri district.
In the videos, shared on social media platforms including Facebook and WhatsApp, a man identifying himself as a community leader accuses Cameroon’s government troops of torching the houses.
“We are at the road linking Jakiri to Kumbo, precisely at Yer where these buildings were razed by the military. The military has burnt down buildings due to the incident that led to the loss of military and they resorted to burning down these buildings to ashes. That is a sign of weakness,” he said.
Cameroon military confirm that the video was taken after government troops attacked a separatist camp in Yer on Thursday to free civilians who were held hostage by separatist fighters.
At least four fighters were killed but no government troops were wounded according to the military. Separatists say at least seven government troops were killed.
The government says frustrated fighters escaped from their camp at Yer and set fire to the houses of people who the separatists accuse of collaborating with government troops.
Tar Emmanuel Tatah is a member of the Cameroon Civil Society Group. He says more than 40 houses have been torched this week in Yer, Kimah and Meluv, all villages in the Northwest region.
Tar says government troops organized reprisal attacks on civilians who the military accused of collaborating with separatists.
“It is really, really terrible that things have gone this way again with the burning of houses when people thought that everything was becoming normal,” Tar said. “It is going to scare people from coming back home. Those who had returned to the Northwest and Southwest regions, will again find themselves internally displaced. Government should use the right approach to solve this problem.”
Rights groups say some of the troops also looted homes before torching them.
Tar said the right approach would be for government troops to stop searching homes in towns and villages suspected to host separatist fighters. He said government troops should withdraw and allow only police officers to maintain law and order in western towns and villages where peace and civilians are returning.
Armed groups have been fighting to break off the largely English-speaking Northwest and Southwest Regions from the rest of Cameroon and its French-speaking majority since 2017.
Last week, the government said several thousand of the 750,000 people displaced by the separatist conflict had returned home for the first time since hostilities began in 2017.
The military said no major separatist attack had been reported within the past six weeks.