How BBC Africa uncovered the story behind an execution video of women and children
Video shows women and children blindfolded and shot by what appear to be Cameroonian soldiers
When the grisly video first emerged of two women and two children being executed at point-blank range by men who appear to be Cameroonian soldiers, the Cameroon government called it "fake news."
The footage, which circulated on social media in July, shows a group of camouflage-clad men leading the women and children at gunpoint along a dirt road. One woman is holding the hand of a little girl, while the other has a toddler strapped to her back.
The men accuse them of belonging to the militant group Boko Haram.
The women and the girl are blindfolded and forced to kneel. The toddler looks directly into the camera. Then three men open fire.
"It is really one of the worst videos that I had to watch in my work," BBC Africa journalist Aliaume Leroy, who helped investigate the footage, told As It Happens host Carol Off.
The following clip, from BBC News Africa's Twitter feed, cuts off before the final deadly moments:
This is the video that went viral. We’ve cut out the ending, but - WARNING – it’s distressing. <a href="https://t.co/6JJrdJqurW">pic.twitter.com/6JJrdJqurW</a>—@BBCAfrica
The video caused rampant social media speculation about who carried out the slaughter and where — with some insisting it actually took place in Mali and was being used to smear the Cameroonian military.
That's when BBC's Eye on Africa team decided to investigate.
"We thought it was very important, you know, to work on this video to verify it and to prove who were the perpetrators," Leroy said.
Using open-source forensic investigation techniques, the reporters placed the execution in the northern Cameroonian village of Zelevet, and identified the three men shown firing on the women and children.
The Cameroon government changed its tune in August and announced it had arrested seven members of the military for the atrocities. Three of those names match up with the BBC's findings.
Cameroon's Ministry of Communications issued a statement reiterating the government's "resolve to ensure that the atrocities that may have been committed by a few misguided soldiers are systematically investigated and, if need be, appropriate sanctions meted out."
In August, there was a sudden change in the govt’s position. <br><br>After weeks of denying that these killings took place in Cameroon, the Minister of Communication announced that 7 members of the military had been arrested and were under investigation. <a href="https://t.co/21idCm0MI4">pic.twitter.com/21idCm0MI4</a>—@BBCAfrica
Leroy said his team set out to answer three key questions: "Where it happened, when it happened and who you see in the video."
To pinpoint the location, the team used the ridge line of the mountains in the background, which matched almost perfectly with Google Earth images of the far northern town of Zelevet.
After a tip off from a Cameroonian source, we found an exact match for that ridge line on Google Earth <a href="https://t.co/niJoH9w3nX">pic.twitter.com/niJoH9w3nX</a>—@BBCAfrica
Then they went about the painstaking effort of matching all the visible trees and buildings in the video to the available satellite imagery.
"We matched every single element on satellite imagery to what we could see in the video and that helped us determine with certainly the exact location of the crime," Leroy said.
Once we had the general location, we looked at other details in the film – tracks, buildings, trees – and matched them precisely to features visible on satellite imagery. <a href="https://t.co/IzKuyKzao8">pic.twitter.com/IzKuyKzao8</a>—@BBCAfrica
"And once you have the location you can start trying to answer the question of when this happened."
By looking at the state of nearby structures — one building that had not yet been completed, and another that has since been demolished — the journalists determined the video was likely shot between November 2014 and and February 2016.
The video also shows this building. Satellite images show us that, by February 2016, it had been demolished. <br><br>The killings happened before February 2016. <a href="https://t.co/EdBqLQHStE">pic.twitter.com/EdBqLQHStE</a>—@BBCAfrica
The existence of a foot path in the footage that's only visible during the hot, dry season narrowed the range from January to April 2015.
"But we can actually be much, much more precise by doing a solar analysis, by doing a simple calculation using the shadow of a soldier and his height and the length of his shadow. ... That gives us the angle to the sun to the horizon," Leroy said.
"The angle of the sun toward the horizon for a certain location changes over the months of the year. So because we knew they were 2015, then we had to find the date range within which we could get that angle."
That narrowed it to somewhere between March 20 and April 15.
Notice that the soldiers, like moving sundials, cast shadows on the track. <br><br>A simple formula tells us the angle and direction of the sun. <br><br>This corroborates our conclusion on the date, and narrows the timeframe further: the killings happened between March 20 and April 5th 2015 <a href="https://t.co/KC8HEvKFuS">pic.twitter.com/KC8HEvKFuS</a>—@BBCAfrica
Finally, they tackled the question of who was in the video, focusing on the three men who opened fire.
One was referred to in the video as "Tchotcho." A Facebook profile linked that nickname to Cameroonian solder Sgt. Cyriaque Bityala — one of the seven men under investigation for the killings.
A source within the military also confirmed Bityala's identity, Leroy said.
We found a Facebook profile that links the nickname 'Tchotcho' to a soldier called Cyriaque Bityala. <br><br>The name Cyriaque Bityala also appears on the government’s list of men now under investigation. <a href="https://t.co/gSN6HMlV0W">pic.twitter.com/gSN6HMlV0W</a>—@BBCAfrica
Another man was identified by a source as Barnabas Gonorso — which resembles the name of arrested soldier Barnabas Donossou.
Although we were not able to confirm this identification, a very similar name – Barnabas Donossou – appeared 11 days later in the government’s list of men now under investigation. <a href="https://t.co/KNvdDVib6o">pic.twitter.com/KNvdDVib6o</a>—@BBCAfrica
Finally, the third man — who kept firing on the women and children after they had died — was called "Tsanga" in the video. A Lance Cpl. Tsanga was also among the seven arrested.
The name Tsanga also appears on the government’s list of soldiers now under investigation, suggesting that “Cobra” is a nickname for Lance Corporal Tsanga. <a href="https://t.co/vVMz2YoJH5">pic.twitter.com/vVMz2YoJH5</a>—@BBCAfrica
In a statement to the BBC, Cameroon's Ministry of Communications said all seven men have been imprisoned and will be given "a fair trial" with the "presumption of innocence."
But Leroy said the story is not over.
For one, the team was unable to identify the women and children who were slain.
"Sadly we couldn't find anything," he said. "We couldn't find anything at all."
What's more, Leroy said, they will watch closely as the investigations and trials unfold to see if anyone is ultimately held accountable for the murders.
"The Cameroonian government still has not made an official statement to say that the crime actually happened on the Cameroonian soil or that it was done by Cameroonian soldiers," he said.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Produced by Katie Geleff.