On the morning of 26 December 2021, Marguerite M, a nurse and Ashu D, an ambulance driver were sent with an MSF ambulance to the Tinto area to pick up a man with a gunshot wound. They arrived at 8am, stabilised the patient and put him in the ambulance, which then headed towards Kumba. The 27-year-old patient had no identification documents, which is not uncommon in Cameroon.
MSF communicated, as agreed with the authorities, this movement: the departure point of the ambulance, its destination, the type of patient it was transporting, whether or not the patient had an identity document, and whether or not they were accompanied by anyone. Despite this not being standard MSF practice, this procedure was vital in this context to prevent ambulances from being blocked at checkpoints for long periods of time, which could be detrimental to patients. Since October 2021, when the procedure for communicating with the authorities was formalised, 132 MSF ambulance transfers involving patients in various emergencies have taken place without any problems.
Neither Marguerite nor Ashu knew who the patient was, or what was his role within the separatist group. They only knew that he was a wounded man in need of medical emergency assistance. The ambulance set off at around 9am, but they were soon stopped at the Nguti checkpoint.
Despite the explanations they gave, they were denied passage, ordered to turn around and escorted back to Mamfe. Marguerite and Ashu were subsequently arrested and detained in Buea prison, where they remain four months later.
In detention for conducting humanitarian work
They were publicly accused of being involved in an operation to ex filtrate a terrorist, of falsifying transfer documents, and of giving the patient a false identity. They were accused of collaborating with separatist rebels in the area. None of the explanations given by MSF, by the legal service provided to Marguerite and Ashu, and Marguerite and Ashu's own version of what happened, have led to their release four months on.
The area is impacted by violence that started almost five years ago, between separatist armed groups and state armed forces,where MSF provides access to free healthcare to people. Treating and transferring the wounded and sick is the basis of what humanitarian organisations do in situations of conflict and violence, with no regard for which side of the conflict the wounded person participated. Providing emergency assistance to people in life-threatening situations is protected under Cameroonian law.
Weeks after the arrest of Marguerite and Ashu, on 19 and 20 January 2022, two other MSF workers were also arrested, separately, in a different case. They are accused of collaboration with secessionism. As with Marguerite and Ashu, MSF is convinced in the legality of the tasks they performed for the medical organization.
MSF took the difficult decision to suspend activities in South-West Cameroon on 29 March to focus on obtaining the safe release of its colleagues.