Douala, Cameroon, July 2, 2013 — At the Access Center of Alternatives-Cameroon, life returns to normal. Gradually. New furniture arrives. New construction is under way. Some employees, though still frightened, go about their business. From time to time, visitors arrive from partner organizations, bringing messages of encouragement and support.
“By next week, normal activities will resume. For now, we are a construction site,” says Franz Mananga, administrative and financial director of the Alternatives-Cameroon Access Center, a center that serves LGBTI people, including health information and medical care for men who have sex with men, especially those who are HIV-positive. He explains what happened:
“At about 7 a.m. on June 26, the staff discovered flames coming from the office of paramedics/psychosocial counselors. Firefighters did not respond to the blaze, nor did neighbors. The center was consumed by the fire. Although no one was killed, most of the equipment (desks, chairs, computers, fans, patients’ medical records, cooking utensils, etc..) was completely destroyed.”
According to a statement released that day by Alternatives-Cameroon, there are “strong suspicions about the criminal origin of this disaster,” which occurred just days after the June 1 burglary at the office of Maximilienne Ngo Mbe and the June 16 burglary of the offices of attorney Michel Togué.
Ngo Mbe is executive director of the Network of Human Rights Defenders in Central Africa (REDHAC). Togué is one of the few lawyers who defends sexual minorities in Cameroon. Everything suggests that a coordinated homophobic campaign is behind these events, some activists say.
Alternatives-Cameroon does not intend to give up its fight for gay people because of this incident. As police continue to investigate the origin and cause of the fire, the organization is considering how to improve security.
“Certainly we will have fire extinguishers in every office, as well as surveillance cameras. We are also looking to hire a daytime security officer and to improve our insurance coverage,” Mananga says.
Activists interviewed for this article said they have not yet figured out a strategy for confronting this wave of attacks against defenders of LGBTI rights. Many are currently traveling abroad. Another obstacle: LGBTI rights organizations have not joined together in a coalition either in Yaoundé or in Douala.
However, Mananga says, it is time to think about a shared strategy.
“Today, Alternatives-Cameroon was the target. Tomorrow, it might be another organization in Cameroon or individual activists,” he says.
Serge Douomong Yotta, executive director of the LGBTI rights advocacy group Affirmative Action in Yaoundé, agrees:
“The [lack of] security of everyone involved in the defense of gay rights is disturbing. Whenever the opportunity arises, whether the threat is from the government or from others, we draw attention to it. On July 1, we issued a press release co-signed with Human Rights Watch and five other organizations in Cameroon, in which we strongly condemned the attacks in Yaoundé and Douala and recommended that criminal charges be brought against these criminals who are depriving many Cameroonians of medical care through the destruction of the Access Center in Douala.”
For Jules Eloundou, president of Humanity First Cameroon, which works for sexual minorities’ rights in the Cameroonian capital, the situation is quite worrying as well:
“With these repeated attacks, of course we are considering how to improve security around our office, perhaps with more guards or fire alarm systems. Our only obstacle is lack of financial and material resources. For now, the discussion is ongoing.”
At the Association for the Defense of Homosexuals (ADEFHO) in Douala, manager Stéphane Koche, is also anxious:
“We do not have a security system, just a gatekeeper who controls the entryway and records the arrivals in a notebook. For now, we are planning nothing more than vigilance to improve security. However, we shouldn’t become paranoid. It’s important to keep working with peace of mind.”
Cameroonian officials show no signs that they are aware of the problem. No one has denounced the attacks. No one has visited the scenes of the fire and the burglaries. Alternatives-Cameroon has called on the government to denounce the attacks and live up to its responsibilities:
“We have not received even a phone call from state officials with whom we work as the representatives of the Ministry of Public Health and the National Committee for the Fight against AIDS, although the work of these groups is aimed at improving services to men who have sex with men through of HIV testing and HIV/AIDS counseling, as outlined in the National Strategic Plan for the Fight against AIDS. The Access Center is responsible for providing ARVs [antiretroviral drugs] to people stigmatized on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It is absurd and despicable that those in charge of these issues cannot respond to such attacks.”
“Moreover, since this is a lawful and democratic country, we would like the instigators of these homophobic acts to do so openly. We probably would know them and certainly would want to sit with them around a table to discuss issues of human health and of society in general.”
—Eric O. LEMBEMBE