Cameroon: Why being an impartial medic can get you killed

The English-speaking Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon have remained volatile since 2017.

When news broke that a Cameroonian doctor and a nurse were arrested by police on July 19 in the restive anglophone region of the country, even authorities did not come forth to confirm it.

The region, dogged by an insurgency for the past four years, has become used to reports of mysterious arrests and kidnappings. But medics were often left alone, until now. 

Local media reported that Dr Atangana Denis and Mr Doh Gilbert, who worked at St. Elizabeth Catholic Health Centre, Bali, in the English-speaking North West region, were treating a member of an armed group wounded during an ambush that killed five policemen on Sunday July 18.

Northwest regional governor Adolphe Lele Lafrique told the media the attack had begun after a police vehicle on patrol ran over an Improvised Explosive Device (IED).

The attackers, thought to be from a secessionist group, then opened fire on the police when the device exploded and overturned the vehicle, killing five of the vehicle’s occupants before fleeing with their weapons.

The government has not issued any statement about the arrest of the medical personnel, instead choosing to only mention the attack on its forces.

 However, local media reported that Dr Atangana and Mr Doh were due to be presented to a military prosecutor at the Bamenda Military Tribunal in the restive North West Region of the country on Tuesday July 27.

Challenges faced 

These latest arrests, however, highlight the challenges medical personnel face when operating in conflict-prone areas.

As fighting intensifies in parts of Cameroon, medical personnel who are impartial and follow the Hippocratic oath to treat patients irrespective of their race, group or affiliation are at risk as they now find themselves caught between the country’s military and rebels.

Armed separatists pushing for the secession of English speakers from the majority French-speaking country have been battling government troops since declaring the independence of a new country they want called Ambazonia - made up of the two English-speaking regions. 

Those regions of Cameroon were administered as part of Nigeria as a UN trust territory under British control before the 1961 reunification and the secessionist fighters say they are fighting “to restore the statehood of the former British Southern Cameroons.”

More than 3,500 people have been killed, according to humanitarian organisations, and over 712,000 forced to flee their homes as a result of the bloody conflict. 

Over 67,000 other people have fled across the border and are now living as refugees in Nigeria due to the conflict that has consecutively topped the Norwegian Refugee Council’s list of the most neglected displacement crises in the world.

Some of those who have fled are doctors and nurses. But for the medics who choose to stay and provide life-saving services, they say they are no longer safe.

They find themselves stuck between the military that accuses them of aiding armed separatists and rebel fighters who also suspect them of being government spies, despite of the fact that international humanitarian law affords special protection to medical property and personnel during conflicts.

“It is not easy to work as some health personnel in northwest and southwest,” said Edmond Bantar*, a medic who fled the region to Cameroon’s most populous city, Douala. He spoke to Nation.Africa under an assumed name to protect his safety.

Horrid tales 

“Armed separatists bring their wounded colleagues to the hospital and order staff on duty at gunpoint to administer treatment, which they sometimes don’t even pay for. When the medics unenthusiastically yield to the demands of rebels and the military finds out, they [the military] accuse doctors of supporting fighters.” 

The government has been using scorched-earth tactics against anyone they suspect is supportive of the separatists’ agenda, according to rights groups.

There is no official record of medical personnel killed in this conflict, either by government forces or rebels.

But once in a while, a horrid tale emerges of a doctor or nurse killed for trying to treat the wounded.

In 2018, Nancy Azah and her husband Njong Padisco, both nurses, were reportedly shot dead by government troops.

The government, however, officially rejected the accusations.

Yet the late couple have become a symbol of the struggle of health workers operating in a conflict, at the risk of becoming a target.

Government troops and rebels have been accused of attacking health facilities and leaving casualties.

The government blamed the burning of a district hospital in Kumba in the southwest region in February 2019 on armed separatist fighters.

At least four people were burnt alive, as well as their property, which included vehicles.

Human Rights Watch said in May 2020 that government troops attacked a health facility in the northwest region and arbitrarily arrested seven health workers in the southwest amid growing violence.

Kidnapping 

On July 6 last year, five nurses of the Cameroon Baptist Convention (CBC) Health Board, working at a CBC hospital in Mamfe in the southwest region were detained by government security forces and charged with secessionist activities, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Routinely off limits for journalists, the data gathered from the ground is mostly by NGOs as both the government and rebels give contradictory narratives about events.

Four days after the July 6, 2020 Mamfe arrests, a community health worker with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was killed by non-state armed group in Kumba, still in the southwest region. He was accused by the fighters of spying for the military. 

Attacks on healthcare workers continue to result in the closure of facilities and decreased access to life-saving services for affected communities.

OCHA noted that 30 per cent of health facilities in the regions were unable to function as of May this year due to insecurity.

“How can such facilities function without personnel?” Bantar wonders.

“Medical and hospital personnel are supposed to be respected and protected in a war situation like in the North West and South West regions, but this is not the case,” he explains, adding that neither side is ready to listen to medical personnel when they explain that they are impartial.

In its situation report on Cameroon published on July 2, OCHA said attacks on medical workers remained a major obstacle to access to health services by the population in the conflict region. 

“Humanitarian staff and healthcare workers reported 14 cases of harassment and kidnappings in May,” the report said explaining the incidents included the kidnapping of healthcare personnel and patients from health facilities and the confiscation of medical supplies.

“With the continuous attacks like the one in Bali last week, I am sure many other health personnel will look for ways to leave for their safety…You have to be alive in order to save lives, that’s why I am in Douala. I am not sure I will go back there [to the anglophone region] because we don’t know when the war will end,” Bantar says.

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