Mass Graves in Cameroon

Based on a tip from Bellingcat’s Open Source Leads Twitter account, I decided to try my hand at verifying a report of a mass burial of Ambazonian fighters in Cameroon. The Open Source Leads tweet links to a video of bodies being dumped into an open pit in a field surrounded by buildings. After looking into this event a little bit more, I found that, despite the initially damning evidence, it’s unlikely that the video depicted a mass burial of Ambazonian separatists. However, my conclusion is not rock solid and I’m open to evidence to the contrary. Either way, how can we verify if this video does or does not show a mass burial? To do that, we need to do two things: geolocate the event and then find information that contextualizes the video.

Geolocation

As with any open source investigation, we have to gather as much evidence as possible prior to starting any actual investigative work. As our first piece of evidence, we have the video linked by the Open Source Leads Twitter account:

Can you verify if this video shows mass graves in Cameroon, and if so, geolocate it? https://t.co/25CxEv38mU

— Open Source Leads (@OpenSourceLeads) September 10, 2019

After searching a bit more on social media, I found a second piece of evidence: a tweet that contains the same video, but also includes some location information:

Mass burial of Ambazonian prisoners in Soa Yaounde. Behind Gas station in the Eleveurs neighborhood.The IG amnesty international others investigate. Videos from an eyewitness @AsstSecStateAF @RepKarenBass @EmilyThornberry @itvnews @Channel4News @MarkTJones500 @BBCAfrica pic.twitter.com/OOQFcQ6k3D

— Secretary Chris Anu (@Secominfo) September 8, 2019

Finally, in the replies to the video above, I found a third, crucial piece of evidence, a shorter, zoomed-in clip that purports to show the same event:

Clearer video of the mass burrier. pic.twitter.com/T1eEwp9YKe

— Ndaleh Habirou (@NdalehH) September 9, 2019

With these three pieces of information, I began looking for exactly where this event took place. To help narrow down the types of places to look for, I marked some interesting features from both videos on the screenshots below:

I started my search by looking on Google Earth for relevant locations near the town of Soa, northeast of Yaounde. Thanks to the information in the Secretary Chris Anu tweet, I focused on the “Eleveurs” (“students”) neighborhood near Yaounde University. However, try as I might, I could not find a spot that fit most, or even any, of the details seen in the videos.

After hitting wall after wall in my search, I decided to ditch Soa and look closer to Yaounde. I figured that because the area displayed in the videos is relatively large (I’m guessing several hundred meters by several hundred meters), any field of that size would be clearly visible in a large, densely populated city.

Lo and behold, after searching a bit more, I found a possible location: a large grass and dirt field on the northeast outskirts of Yaounde, on the road to Soa.

Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 4.10.28 PM.png

How then can we confirm that this is where the bodies in the videos were being dumped? Let’s zoom in on the satellite imagery and mark the details from the stills on the overhead shots:

Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 4.17.24 PM.pngScreen Shot 2019-10-25 at 4.23.37 PM.png

If you’re still not convinced, take a look at this excerpt from the middle screenshot above:

Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 4.35.03 PM.png

In an off-nadir Google Earth satellite image from 2015, the three black windows in the building marked in white are clearly visible:

Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 4.32.09 PM.png

Now that we’ve found exactly where this burial took place, what else can we figure out about the location?

Contextualizing

The first, and perhaps most obvious, connection we can make is that the location is already in use as an established graveyard. The small grey/white rectangles seen in the dirt on the satellite images closely resemble Cameroonian burial plots.

Secondly, searching for “cimetieres (cemeteries) yaounde” on Google brings up a pre-existing cemetery named Cimetiere Fougerole at that location.

At this point, I’ll admit, I don’t have any solid evidence that the bodies being dumped into the grave were not those of fighters or prisoners from the separatist Ambazonia region. However, my hunch is that these people had died of natural causes in one of the many hospitals or religious institutions nearby and were being dumped into a pauper’s grave. I believe this for three reasons:

First, Cimitiere Fougerolle is within 1000 feet of at least eight churches of various denominations that likely care for the poor and sick, as well as three hospitals. Among these churches is the Chapelle Fougerole, which is located just across the street from the cemetery gate:

Screen Shot 2019-10-25 at 6.26.37 PM.png

It’s possible that the neat, orderly rows of grey/white burial plots seen in this image are for people who had the funds to pay for a full burial, whereas the patch of dirt seen in the mass burial videos (located a few hundred yards southwest of this picture) is used for those who can’t pay.

Secondly, an Islamic NGO called La Oumma Cameroun hosts a grave cleaning event every few months at this exact cemetery. For example, here is a Facebook event page for a grave cleaning day in June 2018.

Note that in the banner video for this event, you can see the grey building with three black windows to the left and the red-roofed building to the right spotted in the screenshots and satellite images a few paragraphs back.

Notwithstanding the fact that it would be extremely bizarre for an NGO to clean a site used as a mass burial ground for Ambazonian separatists, these regular cleanings also point to a charitable use case for the field. In other words, it’s logical that private organizations (and especially religious organizations!) would step in to help care for mass burial plots for the poor, who the government or a hospital or a church had already buried at absolute minimum cost.

Third (and apologies if this sounds conspiratorial) but it doesn’t pass the smell test. Why would the Cameroonian government, which has been fighting a low-grade insurgency against Ambazonian separatists for years, transport the bodies of fighters hundreds of miles from Ambazonia to Yaounde at great expense and then choose to dump their bodies in a longstanding, religiously-oriented, community graveyard in the middle of the capitol, rather than some anonymous, unmarked plot of land near the battle ground? I could be totally wrong, but I just don’t buy it. I think it’s far more likely that these bodies were those of destitute individuals that had died in a nearby hospital or church and were being buried in a pauper’s grave.

Of course, the massive disclaimer for this article is that while these videos may not show a mass burial of Ambazonians, that does not mean the Cameroonian government is not committing atrocities in the Ambazonia region. It simply means that in the narrow instances displayed in these videos, I’d like to see more evidence before being convinced that anything nefarious is happening here. If you agree, disagree, or have evidence to the contrary, please drop a comment and let me know what you think.