An asylum seeker’s tale

Feb 11 2003 by Print This Article

It was the last time Francoise Motoum Kamga would see her father

alive. On the 29th June 1997 SDF party activist Remy Kamga attended a political meeting in Douala and had travelled back to his home town of Bafoussam arriving late at night. Just outside his house, Remy was attacked by a gang of government supporters and badly beaten. He was taken to a local hospital where he clung to life for three hours.

Involvement in politics even at local level can have fatal consequences in Cameroon. The French speaking West African state is a shaky democracy with a poor human rights record. Under president Paul Biya, the ruling party RDDP Rassemblement Democratique du Peuple Camerounais suppresses dissent, ruthlessly eliminating individuals felt to be a threat to the state. The Home Office Country and Information Policy Unity bulletin on Cameroon - available on the internet – spells out the dangers. Under the history heading (3.12) the bulletin notes that “Cameroon was admitted to the Commonwealth in November 1995 despite some concerns that little progress has been made on either human rights issues or the democratic process.” Under legal rights (4.15) comes the information that “Arbitrary and prolonged detention…remains a serious problem.”

Remy was an obvious target. The local president for the popular opposition SDF the Social Democratic Front, he had been campaigning against soaring petrol prices that were increasing food prices and transport costs in the oil rich state. Ignoring the obvious dangers, Francoise took up her father’s cause and became a political activist. She soon fell foul of the ruling party.

Francoise is now in the UK having been smuggled out of Cameroon two years ago. In spite of compelling evidence of having been imprisoned, tortured and raped, as well as being badly injured during an attempted abduction she has been refused asylum and is now awaiting a judicial review - the very last stage in a long drawn out legal process. A photograph published in a Cameroon political pamphlet shows a confident young woman, fashionably dressed, hair styled and tinted and glossed lips parted in a smile. Today dressed in cast off clothes her face scarred and immobile and with eyes downcast she looks much older than her 29 years. If her appeal is rejected she will be returned to her country of origin. This is her story.

Her father’s death was the catalyst that propelled Francoise into grassroots politics. She joined the SDF and became a secretary and organiser for the New Bell district of Douala, Cameroon’s capital city. Coming from a middle class and supportive family, Francoise was a devout Catholic. She had also just finished her nurse training and was in her first year working as a midwife. A single mother, she needed to start earning to support herself and her son Bemmo.

Evenings and weekends were dominated by politics. A lively speaker, Francoise was picked to represent her views on Expression Direct, a TV programme that provides a platform for Cameroon’s spectrum of political opinion. She spoke in support of a taxi drivers’s strike designed to draw attention to the escalating fuel prices. The programme was broadcast on the state owned CRTV channel on 15th May 1999. Five days later she received a phone call at work. The local president of her party needed to see her urgently at his home. He was sending a driver to the hospital to collect her.

As Francoise later discovered that call was a hoax. As she was being driven through the city an army lorry rammed her car at a crossroads. The high speed crash was, she believes, intended to kill her. An article in the Cameroonian political newsheet La Cause published on 2 June 1999 describes the crash and attempted abduction blaming the RDPC and linking it to a series of abductions and politically motivated murders including a similar crash in which another militant, Gustave Sone, was killed. The journalist managed to find one witness to the abduction who refused to be named but no eyewitness accounts of the crash. Quoting an unattributed source, she says that the driver of the car was “sent to Europe for intensive care”. No information exists today as to his whereabouts. His disappearance remains a mystery.

The Medical Foundation for Care of Victims of Torture confirms that Francoise’s present physical condition is consistent with the injuries sustained in a car crash. A medical examination has revealed extensive scarring to the right hand side of her head. Her right arm is severely scarred below the elbow with the wound still containing embedded glass.

The Foundation also found evidence of torture in the form of burn marks to her abdomen. Shortly after recovering from her injuries - in Feb 2000 Francoise had once again made another TV appearance talking publicly for the first time about the crash. An unwise decision as she was soon to discover.

One day in April, she her car was stopped by police as she drove to collect her son from school. “Three policemen stopped me. They wanted to see my ID papers I produced them but they ordered me out of my car. I said I had to pick my son up from school. They told me just leave your car at the side of the road. I haven’t seen my son since.”

Francoise says that she was taken to a police station in the district of Akwa and held for around two weeks unable to contact a solicitor or her family. “A guard told me I would die in prison. They tell me I am there by the orders of Madame Fonin (leader of the women’s wing of the ruling RDPC).” Francoise draws a line on the floor with her foot to show the size of the cell where she was kept – it is a space no more than 2m by 1m containing a bucket for slopping out.

After that she was taken to a prison at New Bell. Prison regime in the Cameroon is vividly described in a report by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture entitled Every Morning, just like coffee. Torture in the Cameroon. The report based on medical examination and interviews with 60 Cameroon victims of torture and published in June 2002 found that 93 per cent of women and 33 per cent of men had been subjected to rape or other sexual assaults. Thirty per cent of the group had been given electric shocks and 23 per cent had been suspended in contorted positions.

Psychologist Olivia Ball author of the report says of Cameroon’s political prisoners: “Don’t expect to be charged or brought to trial. You can expect to be beaten and ill-treated and kept in foul conditions. Stripped naked you will be housed in a dark, airless overcrowded cell with no toilet. The guards may jokingly call your daily excursions from your cell for a beating or a torture session un petit café. It’s as regular as morning coffee.

“It may include beatings with truncheons, machetes and rifle butts, often on the soles of the feet. If you are a woman your torture will almost certainly include rape.” The tears stream silently down Francoise’s face as she recalls her daily ordeal. “The prison guards say, ‘You can have food but we want to sleep with you; make love with you.’ I am ruined. My body ruined’ my head ruined."

Three months into her detention, Francoise was smuggled out of jail by a corrupt prison warder in return for the promise of money. After several weeks lying low in safe houses a sympathetic Catholic priest helped her by arranging passage on a boat which eventually arrived in a UK port in mid December 2000. Back in Cameroon, her son who she has not seen since her abduction by the police is being cared for by her mother and older sister.

The mental and physical scars of Francoise’s ordeal will take a very long time to heal. Dr Petra Clarke a gynaecologist for the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture knows Francoise and has this to say: “She has many long term after effects and many scars both from the car accident and from having been beaten. Having suffered multiple rape fear of sexually transmitted disease has been preoccupying her although thankfully she’s tested negative for HIV.”

Caroline Garland a psychotherapist at the Tavistock Centre where Francoise regularly attends group therapy with other traumatised asylum seekers and victims of torture has diagnosed her as suffering from severe post traumatic stress disorder. Her hand written note on a early mental heath assessment says “risk of suicide”. Francoise is gradually coming to terms with what happened and over the months Garland has won her confidence. She says: “Nothing I have heard, seen or felt over the last 18 months has made me feel she isn’t telling the truth.” However, Francoise’s fragile mental state has left her scarcely fit enough to face the rounds of questioning from lawyers and Home Office officials probing and crosschecking her story for inconsistencies, not to mention hearings conducted through an official interpreter.

Garland is also concerned that since the Home Office’s rejection of her asylum claim she has had her financial support and accommodation withdrawn. She says: “She is destitute and having to rely on the kindness of strangers, and you cannot offer psychotherapy to someone who is homeless and starving.”

On the medical evidence alone Francoise would appear to have a strong case for appeal. But she also fears for her life if she is refused asylum. In a low monotone she pleads wearily and without apparent emotion: “If I go back they will kill me.”