Gunshots ring out as the troops advance down a dirt road. One of them, in full combat gear — helmet, camouflage uniform, automatic weapon — clowns for the camera and sticks out his tongue. A sergeant next to him says, in French, “This is a kamikaze mission!”
It quickly becomes clear exactly what type of mission this actually is. It’s of the same type that soldiers carried out at El Mozote, El Salvador, in 1981, at My Lai, South Vietnam, in 1968, and at Oradour-sur-Glane, France, in 1944. It is a massacre. And it is filmed. This particular mass killing takes place in Cameroon, a key U.S. ally and staging ground for America’s drone operations in Africa. While the number of victims is likely smaller than other notorious mass killings, it’s the second atrocity video involving Cameroon’s armed forces to be made public this summer.
“Lay down, lay down. Put your head there,” a soldier shouts at about 12 unresisting people who are seated or lying on the ground. Around the one minute and 44-second mark in the footage, troops aim at the group and fire with their assault rifles for an extended period of time.
“There are some who are not dead,” says one of the soldiers when the shooting subsides. “The dudes still move. They move,” says another.
A soldier then walks forward and fires at close range. Bodies jerk from the impact of the bullets. A voice then calls out, “It’s not us. It’s Yaounde” — the capital of the country, and an apparent reference to the national government.
“This shocking video shows armed men lining people up face down or sitting against a wall and shooting them with automatic weapons,”said Ilaria Allegrozzi, Amnesty International’s Lake Chad researcher. “A second round of shooting ensures no survivors. Here is yet more credible evidence to support the allegations that Cameroon’s armed forces have committed grave crimes against civilians, and we are calling for an immediate, thorough, and impartial investigation. Those suspected to be responsible for these abhorrent acts must be brought to justice.”
Other news organizations have released censored versions of the video that do not show the killings. The Intercept is publishing a version that includes the massacre, and has an English translation. With the U.S. government — which has close ties with Cameroon’s armed forces and operates a drone base in the north of the country — offering little indication that it is seriously investigating the atrocity or reconsidering its military aid to the country, it is in the public interest to make the uncensored footage available.
An investigation by Amnesty International, using digital analysis of the video footage that began circulating online, found that the mass killing of at least a dozen unarmed people took place during a Cameroonian military operation in the village of Achigachiya in the Far North region sometime prior to May 2016. An earlier Amnesty International report documented the extrajudicial executions of at least 30 civilians, including many elderly people, in the same village in January 2015. Local sources say as many as 88 people were killed. While much remains uncertain, the Cameroonian military operation in Achigachiya was apparently part of a mission to recover the bodies of fellow soldiers killed when Boko Haram militants overran a nearby Cameroonian military base in late December 2014. The attack on civilians was likely an act of retribution for perceived local assistance to the insurgents. The video appears to be footage of that 2015 operation.
An Islamist insurgent group with roots in Nigeria, Boko Haram has waged a campaign of violence that spilled across the borders of several Lake Chad Basin countries, including Cameroon. Known for attacks on schools, the burning of villages, and large-scale abductions — including nearly 300 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok on April 14, 2014 — Boko Haram’s brutality has led to ruthless responses from local militaries against suspected supporters, and even civilian victims, of the group.
In July, Amnesty issued a report about another video that showed the point-blank execution of two women and two children by Cameroonian forces who accused them of supporting Boko Haram. (The Intercept was the first news outlet to publish that footage in full.) Those killings similarly took place in the Far North region, where Cameroon has for years conducted operations aimed at the militants, though the fighting there has recently diminished. For more than a year and a half, Cameroonian troops have also been conducting a brutal counterinsurgency campaign — killing unarmed protesters, destroying villages, burning homes — in the bilingual country’s minority Anglophone regions.
“The Department of Defense is gravely concerned about the recent video appearing to depict Cameroonian security forces conducting extrajudicial killings of civilians,” Maj. Sheryll Klinkel, a Pentagon spokesperson, told The Intercept. “This is the second video in a month depicting a similar incident. The Department of Defense takes these incidents seriously.”
According to Allegrozzi of Amnesty, “Crimes caught on camera are just the tip of the iceberg; they are part of a system where abuses are routine, where they are the rule not the exception. This culture of impunity seems to reflect the belief that annihilating suspected insurgents — whether Boko Haram or armed separatists — and terrorizing civilian populations is the way to re-establish security in various parts of the country. This strategy is not only unlawful, it’s also failing, as evidenced by the continually degrading security environment in the country, from the Far North to the North and Southwest.”
The emergence of the two atrocity videos comes roughly one year after Amnesty, the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture, and The Intercept exposed illegal imprisonment, torture, and killings by Cameroonian troops at a remote military base that is also used by U.S. personnel and private contractors for training missions and drone surveillance. As the U.S. military fortified the Cameroonian site in the Far North, known as Salak, and supported the elite local troops based there, Amnesty found that suspects held at the outpost were subjected to water torture, beaten with electric cables and boards, or tied and suspended with ropes, among other abuses.
After the Salak revelations, U.S. Africa Command launched an investigation but never publicly announced details about its aims and has not released the completed report. As The Intercept has previously reported, a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that AFRICOM’s investigation “did not consider Cameroonian human rights violations but focused on whether DoD personnel had knowledge of abuses by Cameroonian military forces.” It appears, in other words, that the U.S. military was less concerned with what the Cameroonians were doing, than whether any Americans knew about it.
For nearly one year, AFRICOM has ignored periodic requests from The Intercept seeking comment about the parameters, scope, and findings of its probe, which was headed by Brig. Gen. Timothy McAteer and concluded in November 2017.
“We believe that the AFRICOM investigation should be made public,” said Allegrozzi. “The report must be publicly released, not only to find out if any U.S. military personnel were aware of incommunicado detention and torture, but also to convey to the Cameroonian authorities how seriously the United States takes this issue.”
Between 2015 and 2018, the U.S. authorized roughly $200 million in security aid for Cameroon, including $108 million earmarked for counterterrorism. “Cameroon is one of the top six recipients in sub-Saharan Africa and in the top three for West Africa, so they are one of the key U.S. counterterrorism partners in sub-Saharan Africa,” Colby Goodman, director of the Security Assistance Monitor, which analyzes U.S. foreign military aid, told The Intercept.
Following the 2017 torture revelations, U.S. military assistance to some, if not all, units of Cameroon’s armed forces was reportedly suspended for a time. The State Department official told The Intercept that “the suspension was based on the [U.S. government] analysis of all sources of credible information, including the 2017 Amnesty International report.”
In April, the State Department released its annual human rights report on Cameroon, citing Amnesty’s 2017 findings and detailing a raft of abuses, including “arbitrary and unlawful killings through excessive use of force by security forces … torture and abuse by security forces including in military and unofficial detention facilities; prolonged arbitrary detentions including of suspected Boko Haram supporters and individuals in the Anglophone regions.” Just 10 days later, however, Peter Barlerin, the U.S. ambassador to Cameroon, presided over a ceremony celebrating the transfer of two American-made surveillance aircraft to the Cameroon Air Force.
Nick Sadoski, the acting spokesperson for the State Department’s Africa Bureau, told The Intercept that “we have informed the Cameroonian government that lack of progress and clarity about actions undertaken by the government in response to allegations of human rights violations could result in a broader suspension of U.S. assistance that is directed toward Cameroonian efforts to counter violent extremist organizations, including especially Boko Haram and ISIS-West Africa.”
Cameroon’s embassy in Washington, D.C. did not respond to The Intercept’s request for an interview. In an August 12 statement posted to YouTube, government spokesperson Issa Tchiroma Bakary announced that a “thorough investigation” would be carried out.
Allegrozzi called on the United States to push Cameroonian authorities to investigate human rights violations and carefully vet all Cameroonian military personnel recommended for U.S. training. “More generally, the United States must take effective measures to ensure that any military cooperation with Cameroon, including training or technical advice, does not contribute to the commission of human rights violations and crimes under international law,” she said.
Goodman echoed those sentiments. “The U.S. definitely needs to follow these issues closely to investigate the risks of any of the aid provided being used for the commission of human rights violations — either in connection to Boko Haram or the Anglophone protesters,” he said. “The United States should be more transparent about their concerns because these are important issues. These are such serious issues that the American public and the Cameroonian public have a right to know what the United States is doing to attempt to prevent this in the future.”
U.S. officials claim that’s being done. “We are engaging with the Department of State to develop a coordinated approach to ensure that the Government of Cameroon credibly investigate these incidents, transparently manage its findings, and hold accountable any individuals found to be responsible,” the Pentagon’s Maj. Klinkel told The Intercept by email.
Nonetheless, AFRICOM, which is the combatant command responsible for Cameroon, remains silent about its long-suppressed report on torture in Cameroon. The Intercept contacted AFRICOM 10 times over the course of roughly one month seeking comment. Email return receipts indicate that two spokespeople read the questions, but the command never responded.