UPDATE (August 14, 2018) – On August 13, Issa Tchiroma Bakary, spokesman for the Cameroonian government, announced on the state radio that the video would be the subject of “an in-depth investigation overseen by the head of state”, but he noted that he rejected the accusations “as long as the identities and affiliations of the soldiers who allegedly committed these summary executions aren’t incontestably established”.
A video showing men in military uniform summarily executing a dozen people lying on the ground has been circulating on social networks since August 7. But these images, which the FRANCE 24 Observers team has been investigating since mid-July, were filmed back in January 2015. The scene took place in Achigachiya, in Cameroon’s Far North region. According to witness testimony, dozens of civilians were killed by Cameroonian soldiers in a single day in Achigachia, during an operation against the jihadist group Boko Haram.
The video that has been circulating on social networks lasts 3 minutes and 54 seconds. But mid-July, the FRANCE 24 Observers team obtained a longer version of this video, which lasts 5 minutes and 17 seconds.
WHAT DOES THIS VIDEO SHOW?
The video begins with several armed men in military uniform walking in a street, in which several buildings are on fire. Other men, also in uniform and heavily armed, are aboard a white vehicle driving slowly down the street.
This is the video that lasts 05:17. We have blurred parts of the video so as to avoid showing graphic violence.
Soldiers talk about their 'kamikaze mission'
The man filming then starts speaking with a man in military uniform wearing sunglasses, as shots ring out. The man filming asks him to say something, then laughs. The uniformed man tells him, with a smile, that “the mission went well; we combed the village of Achigachiya, which was first taken over by Islamists from Boko Haram in Nigeria”.
Then another white vehicle, similar to the first, can be seen passing by. You can briefly see the profile of a man wearing a keffiyeh – most likely the man who is filming – while shots continue to ring out.
Starting at 01:23, you can see the part of the video that has been circulating online since August 7. In this part, there are also men in military uniform, white vehicles, buildings on fire, and the sound of gunshots. Starting at 01:41, two people in civilian clothing are visible.
At 02:06, the man filming stops the recording, then turns it on again. Then, laughing, he asks two uniformed men, “What do you have to say about this mission?” One of them tells him, “Thisis a kamikaze mission!”
People in civilian clothing shot against a wall
At 02:39, the recording cuts again, then starts anew. You can see a group of people along a wall. They appear to be lying down, but some of them have their backs propped up against the wall. An armed man wearing a bulletproof vests walks around them, agitated and yelling at them.
Shots ring out. The camera zooms inon the people lined up against the wall: there are about ten of them, all in civilian clothing. Then multiple shots ring out in quick succession and you can see smoke above the people on the ground, who are riddled with bullets. You can see a large red stain on one person’s pants. An off-camera voice yells “Wait!” three times. Many other men yell and you can make out the words “the refugees that are arriving over there”.
A man in military uniform then fires five spaced-out shots, apparently to kill the people who aren’t yet dead. A voice says: “Come out in front.” Another man with a helmet squats down and shoots at the people on the ground.
Screen grabs of the part of the video where people in civilian clothing are executed against a wall. We have blurred the victims. These screen grabs were taken from the portion of the video that we have entirely blurred above.
At the end of the video, you can once again see a bit of the keffiyeh likely belonging to the man filming. The situation appears hectic: you can hear a man saying “We’re leaving” and lots of yelling.
WHERE WERE THESE IMAGES FILMED?
In this video, the man in military uniform and sunglasses says he has “combed the village of Achigachiya, which was first taken over by Islamists from Boko Haram in Nigeria”. Achigachia is located in the Mozogo county, in the department of Mayo-Tsanaga, in the Far North region of Cameroon. It is right on the border with Nigeria – part of the village is in Nigeria, and part is in Cameroon.
Our journalists showed screen grabs from the longer video to people from Achigachiya and the surrounding area who all recognized the village. Several of them noted that the scene took place in a neighborhood called Talla-Massali, located in the village’s east, on the Cameroonian side.
WHAT HAPPENED THAT DAY?
Florent (not his real name; we have changed his name for security reasons) was living in Achigachiya at the time of these events, in January 2015 (You’ll find more explanations about the date further down in the article). Here’s what he says took place:
The soldiers had warned that they didn’t want to see anyone in the village when they got there, so almost everyone had fled, apart from elderly people who couldn’t walk well. Myself, I had left for Mozogo [Editors’ Note: about 66 kilometres away by road]. According to Achigachiya residents, the soldiers killed elderly people. They also set fire to the Talla-Massali neighbourhood. All this happened on the same day. The next day, I returned to Achigachia, like many other residents. Some of them started burying the dead: about 30 people were shot dead. Myself, I know someone whose father was killed.
Florent (not his real name) also told us that he recognised a soldier in the video (the man wearing sunglasses) and told us that this man was currently in Achigachiya. Another source told us the exact same thing.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team also spoke to two people who told us their relatives were killed that day. One of them said:
My father, who was about 85, was killed. Witnesses told me what happened. The soldiers entered the village, torched houses and killed people, in particularly elderly people. Villagers saw this all take place. Other villagers who fled then came back the next day and saw the bodies – they said there were 82 or 83 of them. They then buried the bodies.
The second person’s recollection was very similar:
Soldiers took people outside of their homes to kill them, while others were taken out in front of the mosque and killed there. One of my relatives told me that 88 people were killed.
Our team also spoke to other indirect witnesses – people who spoke with Achigachiya residents who were there during these events. They all indicate Cameroonian soldiers killed civilians – for the most part elderly people – though the numbers of reported victims varied.
WEAPONS USED BY THE CAMEROONIAN ARMY
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to a ballistics expert who recognised several weapons in the video, including Zastava M21 S assault rifles, AK-47/AKM-type assault rifles, and RPK machine guns. The Zastava M21 S was of particular interest to him: “Cameroon bought large quantities of these assault rifles from the Serbian manufacturer Zastava Arms. The Cameroonian army’s Rapid-Response Battalion uses them, so other military units in the region may use them as well.”
Brian Castner, a weapons specialist for Amnesty International, said that Cameroon was the only African country he knew of that owns Zastava M21s.
The ballistics expert also indicated that the second white vehicle seen in the videowas equipped had a firing post equipped with 14.5x114 mm caliber ZPU-2 double barrel canons. “These canons are used for anti-aircraft operations. They are in use by the regular army in Cameroon,” he says.
He adds that this video is no way fake: “It shows soldiers using appropriate gear, wearing the same uniforms and magazine pouches;some of them wear light ballistic vests. The sounds of the weapons as well as the blood that appears on the clothes of the people on the ground – which is consistent with ballistic wounds – all of this indicates that it’s an authentic event.”
WHEN WERE THESE IMAGES FILMED?
According to witnesses, these events took place in January 2015. However, they don’t all recall the exact date; the two people whose relatives were killed recalled January 1 or January 8.
This information is consistent with findings from Amnesty International published in a July 2016 report, which mentioned the events in Achigachiya:
[…] Amnesty International documented other attacks on civilians by security forces […] in Achigachiya […] where at least 30 people, many of whom elderly, were killed in January 2015 following an operation by the security forces who wanted to recover the bodies of the soldiers killed by Boko Haram on 28 December 2014 and which were abandoned in front of the military base destroyed by the insurgents.
On December 28, 2014, Boko Haram combatants had taken over a military camp and put up their flag in Achigachiya. The Cameroonian army fought back by using fighter jets, which was a first in their fight against Boko Haram. This allowed the army to recapture the village from the jihadists.
WHAT THE AUTHORITIES SAY
On the afternoon of August 8, the FRANCE 24 Observers team contacted the spokesman of the Cameroonian army, Didier Badjeck, and the spokesman for the government, Issa Tchiroma Bakary.
The army spokesman called the video a “fake”. He added: “The Cameroonian army is professional and respects human rights. When abuses are committed, they are punished, because we in no way condone them.”
The government spokesman said: “I just discovered this video. One has to be careful, because there is a lot of 'fake news' circulating ahead of the presidential election [slated for October 7]. Moreover, I have not yet spoken with the army’s high command, so for the moment, I reject all the accusations that might be made against us.”
Meanwhile, Amnesty International told us that “the video should be a wake-up call about the severity of the human rights crisis in Cameroon and the real risks that the plunge the country could into chaos if the army continues to act with complete impunity".
Amnesty International has regularly denounced human rights abuses committed by the Cameroonian security forces in their fight against Boko Haram, notably the use of torture.
>> Since mid-July, our team has also been investigating a video showing men in military uniform executing two women and two children (see screen grab below). Certain details indicate that it was likely filmed in the Far North region of Cameroon. If you have any information that might help us learn more about this video, please contact us via email (email@example.com), via Facebook, or via WhatsApp (+33 6 30 93 41 36).
This article was written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).