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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 August, 2004, 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK
Doing time in a Cameroon 'cell'

In July, the authorities in Cameroon arrested two BBC journalists on an assignment for World Service radio in the disputed region of Bakassi. Now free, one of the journalists, Farouk Chothia, tells his story:

Bakassi region
The journalists travelled with the full knowledge of local authorities
"If you were really spies, you would have been shot dead," the military commander of Cameroon's Bakassi force said, as he released me and my colleague Ange Ngu Thomas.

We were in the custody of the military for six days in July after senior officers viewed our presence in Isangele, a village in Bakassi that falls under Cameroonian jurisdiction, as a breach of security.

This is despite the fact that we went to Isangele in a military boat with the knowledge of government officials in the region.

Although officially designated as a war zone, Isangele does not bear the scars of conflict - no bullet-riddled buildings or security force checkpoints.

It is a peaceful village of subsistence farmers and fishermen who welcomed us with open arms.

But the military top brass seemingly want to keep the village isolated for fear that it will be 'destabilised' by Nigeria - which occupied large parts of Bakassi a decade ago, triggering a war with Cameroon - or by local opposition groups opposed to the government.

The authorities blocked moves to establish a mobile phone network in Isangele as they were concerned that phones would be used to stoke conflict.

Bakassi has been tense for a long time. Following a 2002 ruling by the International Court of Justice, Nigeria began withdrawing its troops from the area in July with the process scheduled to be concluded by mid-September.

Against this backdrop, the crackdown on us did not come as a surprise - although I failed at the time to grasp how paranoid the military is.

Comfortable quarters

Ange and I were transferred from Isangele to Limbe, where the Bakassi force has its headquarters.

Farouk Chothia
We learnt through media reports that we were under 'house arrest'
Farouk Chothia
Rather than being thrown into a cell, we were booked into a hotel overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.

The officers did not say anything. The presence of guards outside our rooms made us realise that we were still under their control.

In the meantime, soldiers retraced our steps to Isangele, questioning the hotel receptionists and government officials with whom we had contact.

We learnt through media reports that we were under "house arrest" after being caught taking photographs of military installations while being on an "espionage mission" for an unspecified country.

Yet, the military did not have a camera of ours in their possession and officers appeared to accept during our interrogation (when I was told that "we will ask the questions now, not you") that we were bona fide journalists.

Press freedom

Six days after we first ran into trouble, we were called to the hotel restaurant.

The commander introduced us to the eight-member team that investigated us, as though Ange and I were dignitaries inspecting a guard of honour.

He offered us drinks, before proposing toasts to His Excellency, to press freedom and to the soldiers of peace.

"Gentlemen, you are released," he declared. "The guards were here to protect you. We did not want another Jean Helene incident."

I did not miss the irony: Helene, a journalist, was killed in Ivory Coast by a member of the security forces last year.


SEE ALSO:
BBC reporters freed in Cameroon
16 Jul 04  |  Africa
Nigeria hands Cameroon villages
19 Dec 03  |  Africa
'My home is in another country'
19 Jan 04  |  Africa
Nigeria stalls on Bakassi
07 Aug 03  |  Africa


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