As It Happens

How BBC Africa uncovered the story behind an execution video of women and children

When the grisly video first emerged of two women and two children being executed at point-blank range by what appeared to be Cameroonian soldiers, the Cameroon government called it "fake news."

Video shows women and children blindfolded and shot by what appear to be Cameroonian soldiers

This woman and the small child strapped to her back were executed by a group of men who BBC Africa investigative reporters have identified as Cameroonian soldiers. (@BBCAfrica/Twitter )

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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:

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. 

The BBC investigation is outlined in a BBC documentary and Twitter thread. As It Happens has not independently confirmed the 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."

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.

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.

"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 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.

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.

Another man was identified by a source as Barnabas Gonorso — which resembles the name of arrested soldier Barnabas Donossou.

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. 

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.