(Nairobi) – Armed groups have carried out a wave of killings in central Mali since January 2017. The killings, by Islamist armed groups, self-defense militias, and, to a lesser extent, government soldiers, have resulted in at least 52 deaths, led to the displacement of over 10,000 people, and dramatically elevated ethnic tensions. Malian authorities should investigate and prosecute all those responsible.

 
Islamist armed groups have over the past two years progressively increased their presence in central Mali, where they have executed civilians and government officials and committed other abuses. Their presence, and recruitment of local residents, has inflamed and exploited tensions among the Peuhl, Bambara, and Dogon ethnic groups, spawning the growth of often-abusive self-defense militias.
 
“Violence since January fueled by explosive ethnic tensions has swept across central Mali, leaving dozens dead,” said Corinne Dufka, associate Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian government should ramp up efforts to stop this violence by vigorously prosecuting the killings and stepping up patrols to protect vulnerable populations.”
 
During a 10-day research mission to Mali in February, and by phone in late February and March, Human Rights Watch interviewed 57 victims and witnesses to killings and other abuses in central Mali. Human Rights Watch also interviewed members of the ethnic Peuhl and Bambara communities; former detainees; local government, security and justice officials; and foreign diplomats.
 
On February 11, alleged Peuhl Islamist fighters killed a Bambara shopkeeper near the town of Ke-Macina in Ségou region, 320 kilometers from the capital, Bamako. This sparked retaliatory killings against Peuhl villagers by a Bambara self-defense militia known as the Dozos, leaving at least 21 people dead, including children.
 
On February 18, armed Islamists executed nine Bozo and Bambara traders returning home from a local market for their perceived support of the Dozos. Since then, at least 16 people – both civilians and armed group members – have been killed in an escalating series of tit-for-tat attacks. Both Peuhl and Bambara villagers told Human Rights Watch that villagers were terrified as large groups of armed men have been seen driving around on motorcycles and vehicles in their villages in central Mali.
 
Additionally, since January, three local government representatives in Mopti region have been assassinated, allegedly by armed Islamists.
 
While the Malian security forces have generally acted to quell the ethnic violence, witnesses reported that in response to the growing presence of armed Islamists in central Mali, some soldiers executed at least eight suspected Islamists and forcibly disappeared several others since late December 2016.
 
Bambara and Peuhl community leaders lamented the violence that has gripped central Mali for the past two years. Villagers, local officials, and elders from both ethnicities said that poverty, public sector corruption, inadequate security, and the lack of investigations and justice for communal violence and criminality were fueling recruitment by armed groups.
 
A Peuhl youth leader, addressing the lack of justice for the many killings since early 2015, said: “In central Mali, we, the Peuhl, were the jihadists’ first victims… we’ve also lost imams, mayors, and chiefs at the hands of the jihadists, but no one talks about that.” Another said, “So many Peuhl have been tortured, disappeared or killed by the soldiers and by the Dozos, but there is never justice for these terrible crimes.”
 
A Bambara leader said: “Since 2015, so many of our people have been gunned down in their farms, at home, or on their way to market. We have reported this to local and Bamako authorities, but what we hear are excuses for why they don’t investigate – the rain, the danger, insufficient vehicles. But in the end, there is no justice and the killings keep happening.”
 
A Peuhl villager said, “To end all this, everyone must be treated with dignity; every killing must be investigated. If not, if the state doesn’t pay attention, people will continue to join the jihadists and their numbers and force will continue to grow.”
 
The government should investigate and hold to account those responsible for serious abuses committed in central Mali by armed groups, civil defense militias, and state security forces. It should also report on the progress made into its investigation into the May 2016 deadly communal violence near the town of Dioura, in Mopti region.

To end all this, everyone must be treated with dignity; every killing must be investigated. If not, if the state doesn’t pay attention, people will continue to join the jihadists and their numbers and force will continue to grow.

Villager, central Mali

On March 2, the government announced the establishment of a 45-day commission of inquiry to investigate the violence in Ke-Macina. The commission, consisting of nine magistrates and 22 gendarmes, was given 45 days to submit a report, the government said. If it carries out its mandate credibly and impartially, the commission will be a meaningful step in seeking justice for the victims and their families.

 
Human Rights Watch recommended the implementation of a longer-term commission, preferably initiated by the Malian parliament, in order to address a broader range of issues. Such a longer-term commission should:
  • Investigate sources of weapons for both armed Islamist groups and self-defense groups, including the Dozos;
  • Investigate the underlying causes of inter-communal tensions in central Mali, including government corruption, resolution of farmer-herder tensions, and the crucial need for civilian protection from – and justice for – rampant banditry; and
  • Develop clear recommendations for accountability, reparations, and prevention of further abuses.

“The worsening violence in central Mali thrusts members of all ethnic groups into the dangerous cycle of violence and impunity,” Dufka said. “The Malian government and its allies need to confront this insecurity head on before more blood is shed. The Ke-Macina investigation is a very good place to start.”

The Seeds of Violence
In 2012, Mali’s northern regions fell to separatist ethnic Tuareg and Al-Qaeda-linked armed groups. Military operations by French and Malian forces since 2013, along with a 2015 peace accord, sought to eliminate the presence of Islamist armed groups, disarm Tuareg and other fighters, and re-establish state control over the north. However, insecurity and violence in Mali’s previously stable central and southern regions has increased.

Since early 2015, an Islamist armed group referred to as the Macina Liberation Front, or Katiba Macina, under the command of an Islamic preacher, Hamadoun Koufa Diallo, has attacked army bases and police and gendarme posts. The group has executed numerous alleged army informants and officials, including mayors and local administrators.

Armed Islamist groups have closed schools, warned people not to collaborate with the government, increasingly imposed harsh restrictions based on their interpretation of Islam, prohibited traditional celebrations including marriages and baptisms, and imposed Sharia (Islamic law) in some villages. The insecurity has led to displacement of thousands of civilians.

While the group’s new area of operation is largely inhabited by the Peuhl, Bambara, and Dogon ethnic groups, Islamist groups have concentrated their recruitment efforts on the Peuhl. Since 2015, Peuhl community leaders have expressed concern about the Islamists’ recruitment. They attributed this success to the Islamists’ exploitation of community frustrations with poverty, government corruption, generational disputes within Peuhl clan leadership, the lack of justice for common crime, abusive conduct by the Malian security services, and the government’s failure to protect civilians from rampant banditry.

The sparse presence of Malian security forces in the area has also led to the formation of ethnically aligned self-defense groups, notably by the Bambara and the Dogon, near the Burkina Faso border. Several Bambara leaders said they took security into their own hands because Malian security forces had failed to protect their villages and property. They said the Islamist armed group killings of numerous Bambara farmers, herders, and local leaders had not been investigated, nor had any of those responsible been brought to account.

The sedentary Bambara and pastoral Peuhl communities have long had disputes and misunderstandings over access to water and land. However, since the proliferation of Islamist armed groups and the growth and militarization of the Dozo, such disputes have become increasingly deadly.

Communal Violence in Ke-Macina
The deadly communal violence on February 11 and 12 between members of the Peuhl and Bambara communities around the town of Ke-Macina was sparked by the February 11 killing of a Bambara shopkeeper, Chiaka Traoré, by an alleged Islamist fighter in the village of Diawaribougou, four kilometers away. The Malian Security Ministry said that 20 people had been killed and 18 wounded. However, Peuhl community leaders told Human Rights Watch the death toll could be over 30.

A witness to the killing of the shopkeeper said, “He was killed at about 8 p.m. by two men on a motorcycle who pretended to buy gas at his little shop. They whipped out a gun and shot him several times before speeding off.”

A friend of the victim told Human Rights Watch:

Chiaka told me a few weeks before he died that he had gotten death threats from the Peuhl bandits – usually they warn you two times. He said the jihadists told him if he didn’t stop talking about [Hamadoun] Kouffa and talking to the FAMA [Malian army], that they would come for him. He said he had complained to the mayor and gendarmes, but they couldn’t protect him.

Human Rights Watch has documented about 40 such targeted killings of suspected informants by Islamist armed groups in central Mali since early 2015.

Witnesses said that after burying the shopkeeper on February 12, a group of about 100 Dozos, some living in villages around Ke-Macina and others from neighboring administrative areas, attacked seven largely Peuhl hamlets, killing residents and setting fire to numerous houses. The hamlets attacked were Wuro Hadji Samba, Wuro Botamkobé, Wuro Brahima Hadji, Wuro Nona, Wuro Thaté, Wuro Direbé, and Sampey. Witnesses said the Dozos were armed with hunting rifles and some with military assault weapons. An elderly resident who was shot in the arm during the attack on his village said:

We were saddened to learn of the assassination of the shopkeeper, and I went to his burial, but unfortunately, the authorities and Dozos said we should leave. Thirty minutes after returning home, I saw several young people in traditional Dozo attire and armed with hunting rifles and Kalashnikov [assault rifles] coming toward us. I recognized seven of them – they were from my very village.

Without talking, they started firing. I was hit in the arm and saw my brother and another relative fall dead. His 4-year-old son was also shot. In my village they killed six people and wounded three… then they attacked the next village. We have lived together for a very long time – how could they have done this?

A wounded man from a village three kilometers away gave a similar description, saying a woman and two children from his village were killed in the attack. A herder described the burials of 21 victims, including two who had been burned beyond recognition:

Most of the dead were buried on Sunday and Monday, but on Tuesday we found and buried four more bodies, including a man and women who burned to death inside their house. Eleven are buried in a common grave Ke-Macina, another six in a hamlet, and the four I helped bury. Some were shot at close range, others at a distance… others burned.

Other Retaliatory Killings
At least 24 other people have been killed during communal violence since January 2017. The victims include members of Peuhl, Bambara, and Bozo ethnic groups. The attackers are allegedly members of Islamist armed groups and Dozo traditional hunters.

Witnesses and elders from both the Bambara and Peuhl communities said that some of these killings were retaliation for the Ke-Macina violence, while others appeared to be a response for the large-scale theft of livestock.

On February 18, armed Islamists allegedly stopped and killed nine traders – most from the Bozo ethnic group – on their way back from the Saturday market in Niono in Ségou region. Three people with detailed knowledge of the incident said that more than 20 heavily armed Islamists, who had been driving around the area in a beige Toyota pickup and several motorcycles, stopped the traders and their donkey carts 25 kilometers from Niono, at about 4 p.m. The armed men accused the traders of complicity in the Ke-Macina killings, demanded to know if they had any relationship with the Dozo, then took them off the main road, tied their hands behind their backs, and shot each one in the head.

At least 15 other people were killed in fighting between the Bambara and Peuhl over livestock theft. Members of both communities said while these disputes have grown increasingly common as competition over grazing and farmland has increased, they have become much more lethal since the appearance of armed Islamist groups in 2015 and the resulting proliferation of firearms. They said the Islamists have on several occasions intervened in the disputes on behalf of the Peuhl, especially after Peuhl herders had been murdered.

Around February 20, Peuhl leaders said, a group of Dozos killed three Peuhl herders tending their cows. A Dozo leader told Human Rights Watch that on February 21, “About 20 kilometers from Diabaly, 10 of our people were killed and 13 wounded when we were ambushed by jihadists while trying to get back our cattle… It was a heavy ambush – they were really well armed.” He added: “Killing has become an almost daily thing… just yesterday [March 27], Bambaras taking a sick relative to the hospital were attacked. Two of our people died.” Leaders from both communities lamented the lack of justice for the many killings.

Assassinations of Local Government Representatives
Three local government and village leaders in Mopti region have been assassinated so far in 2017. In all three cases, the perpetrators arrived on motorcycles and quickly fled after killing their victims, two of whom were of Dogon ethnicity. While no Islamist group has claimed responsibility, all three cases resemble previous targeted killings of suspected collaborators by armed Islamists.

The mayor of Boni, Hamadoun Dicko, was shot and killed after leaving a mosque on January 18. The mayor of Mondoro, Souleymane Ongoiba, was fatally shot in front of his home in Douentza on January 28. Adry Ongoiba, the 72-year-old chief of the Dogon section of the village of Yirma, 35 kilometers from Boni, was assassinated on March 26 at his home. A witness to Adry’s killing said:

Around 2:20 a.m., I heard gunshots, and immediately ran outside… I saw two men running away and moments later heard the sound of a motorcycle as it sped away. I found the chief lying on his back with two bullets in his head and chest… There was panic, the women were wailing. People were saying the assailants were speaking Pulaar, and said, “It is you we are looking for.” He was killed with an automatic weapon… the bullets we found there were not from local hunting rifles, that’s for sure.

The Malian Security Forces
Peuhl and Bambara villagers reported that the Malian security forces, who are responsible for protecting all Malians, have both protected vulnerable Peuhl villagers and seemingly turned a blind eye to the violence. Several Peuhl leaders said they believed the government was arming the Dozo militia.

Several residents said that after incidents of communal violence, the army tried to calm tensions by patrolling, crediting the soldiers with saving their lives. Two Peuhl elders told Human Rights Watch they believed many more Peuhl would have died if the army had not deployed in the days after February 12 to dissuade further killing. One official said, “Yes, the army was patrolling, but they cannot be everywhere, and some villages were attacked either just before or after the army had passed through.”

A few Peuhl villagers felt both protected and victimized by the army. A man from a village close to Ke-Macina said:

On Sunday night, we were on alert; we had heard of the burned hamlets and people killed. The army arrived, asking if we were okay. We said we were okay for the moment and they continued on their way. But just an hour later, the Dozos arrived on motorcycles and started firing, killing three youth and wounding two more. We tried to defend ourselves from the Dozo with our local-made weapons, but then the army returned and started shooting at us. But later they evacuated the wounded to Ke-Macina.

Other residents questioned why the security forces did not intervene more aggressively to stop the killing on February 12, which they said went on for several hours. “The army was only a few kilometers away when all this going on… and the sound of gunfire really carries in the bush,” a witness said. One Peuhl man said that he had warned the security forces and local government “of the tense situation at the cemetery.” He added, “As soon as I left I told the authorities, ‘The situation is hot; there are over 100 Dozos there and more coming, they are armed and talking of revenge… the FAMA must go or there will be a serious problem’… but they didn’t act as aggressively as they should have. The killing went on from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.!”

Several Peuhl villagers and leaders questioned why Dozo members, include several Dozo leaders, had not been detained for questioning in the days after the violence. “The armed Dozos who took part in the killing were there, on the day the government delegation visited the area to assess the damage and try to calm things down,” a witness said. “They were armed. Some of those who killed our people were hanging around… but no one was arrested.”

The armed Dozos who took part in the killing were there, on the day the government delegation visited the area to assess the damage and try to calm things down. They were armed. Some of those who killed our people were hanging around… but no one was arrested.

Witness to February 11-12 communal violence in Ke-Macina, Mali

Peuhl leaders also questioned why a ban on using motorcycles for transportation between villages in the Ségou region, announced in mid-February by Chef d’Etat-major Didier Dacko, as a security measure, did not always appear to apply to Dozo.

Gendarmes, army officials, and Dozo leaders interviewed said that the ban applied to everyone. However, several Peuhl said they have on several occasions witnessed large groups of armed men, including Dozo, circulating in Ségou region on motorcycles. One Peuhl youth noted, “In some cases, Dozo even stop villagers, ask for IDs, search hamlets and do the job of soldiers.”

Several Peuhl leaders said the use by some Dozo of automatic weapons suggests that Malian security services are supporting them, a charge members of the army categorically denied to Human Rights Watch.

Several villagers expressed concern about the proliferation of arms and said that civilians could easily buy them from traders, including those going back and forth to Mauritania. One Bambara villager said:

The state doesn’t give the Dozo anything, except rice and help with medical bills, but they also help Peuhl villagers at times. No, both the Dozos and even the Peuhl buy their Kalashnikovs. The state is not present so we are all are doing this. Usually we get them from Mauritania – there is no control at the border, or customs… we know how to go about purchasing them and who we have to ask.

A Peuhl youth leader said, similarly:

The price of a nice cow, that’s how much a Kalashnikov costs – about 500,000 CFA (US$800). People buy them from shop owners who go to Mauritania and Algeria all the time – for some reason, the army doesn’t always search their cars. When you need a gun, whatever [ethnicity] you are, you put in your order, they tell you to wait several days, and your merchandise is delivered.

Malian Security Force Violations
Since early 2017, Human Rights Watch has documented several abuses allegedly committed by members of the Malian security forces, including the summary executions of three men, the enforced disappearance of six men, and the mistreatment in detention of several detainees. The alleged violations occurred during counterterrorism operations in Ségou and Mopti regions.

As compared with previous years, allegations of abuse by the security forces have steadily declined. However, the military and civilian justice systems have made little effort to investigate and hold to account soldiers implicated in violations against detainees.

Three witnesses said that about 6:30 a.m. on January 21, soldiers conducting an operation in the village of Yirma, in Mopti region, detained and later executed three members of the same extended family: Hamadoun Isss Diallo, 65; Amadou Hamadou Diallo, 27; and Hamadoun Boucari Diallo, 25.

“From my house I saw three army vehicles with mounted machine guns and full of soldiers take the men away,” one said. Another witness said: “the soldiers bound their eyes and drove off in the same direction from which they had come, [toward] Mondoro [26 kilometers away].” Less than 30 minutes later, the witnesses said, they heard gunshots in the distance. They later found the men after disinterring them from a shallow grave near Bamguel village, 18 kilometers away. One witness described following vehicle tracks to the site, where he saw “a grave, newly dug covered with branches of trees and many spent casings… I returned to our village to deliver the bad news.”

The executions near Yirma occurred just kilometers away from a very similar incident a month earlier, on December 19, when soldiers detained and executed five men from Issèye village. One of two witnesses interviewed said:

At about 11 a.m., 10 FAMA vehicles full of heavily armed soldiers stormed the village. They didn’t stay long. They detained the village chief first, then the others. Around 4 p.m., we heard gunfire, and the next morning we found the shallow grave just a few kilometers away. We uncovered the bodies… the chief was on top… each had several gunshot wounds. There was blood, and many bullet casings.

The witnesses said they had informed the gendarmerie in Boni of the killings, but one witness said, “We’re aware of no investigation… no one has contacted us since that day – no one is trying to find those who murdered our people. Imagine, in 2015, the chief himself was detained and tortured by the jihadists, and now he has been killed by the authorities.”

Human Rights Watch also documented the enforced disappearance of six men. Witnesses said that Malian security forces detained the men during operations in January and February. The witnesses had unsuccessfully looked for the men in several detention centers in Mopti and Ségou regions, and even in Bamako.

Two witnesses said that Ibrahim Barry, 35, was detained in Mopti on February 3, during a meeting organized by a local nongovernmental organization. One witness said: “At about 10:30 a.m., two uniformed people came into the room with a list, saying they were looking for a particular person, who wasn’t in our meeting. Later, at around 1:30 p.m., we broke for lunch. As Ibrahim headed out the door, he was forced into a white pickup by men in uniform. No one has seen him since that day.”

Two witnesses said Boura Alou Diallo, 32, was detained near the village of Kokoli around January 23, and held for two days in the Mondoro army camp. “He was seen tied to a tree near the camp for two days,” said one witness. “I was informed by our people that they heard gunfire inside the camp. We have looked everywhere, but haven’t seen a trace of him since that day.”

Around January 17, four members of the same family were arrested during an army operation in the village of Tomoyi, near the town of Ténenkou. A witness said, “The soldiers surrounded the village, did house to house searches, then took away four men from the same family. Before leaving, an officer said, ‘Don’t be afraid…we’ll do our investigation and return them.’” Their names and approximate ages are: Hassan Sidibe, 53; Boubacar Sidibe, 49; Boubacar Sidibe, 30; and Yonousa Sidibe, 30.

Malian authorities should impartially investigate these cases, as well as the March 30 killing, allegedly by gendarmes, of Amadou Diallo and Amadou Dicko in Konna village, 70 kilometers from Mopti. Agence France Presse (AFP) quoted an army spokesman as saying the security forces recovered arms from the men after they attempted to attack a gendarme post at 2 a.m.

However, local residents including the mayor said the men were not armed at the time. One resident told Human Rights Watch that the two men were arrested shortly after returning to Konna at about 11 p,m. “They had gone to the Boni market to sell about a dozen cows,” the resident said. “We saw them being arrested after buying bread at a local store. We know them… They are traders, not rebels.”

Sékou Touré, president of the Konna Youth Association and a member of the village’s security brigade, was quoted by AFP as saying, “We all know these two young people. They are not terrorists, it’s just a military blunder.”