(Bamako) – Ethnic militias in Mali killed at least 75 civilians during a one-week period in early December 2018. Malian authorities began investigations into the incidents and made some arrests, and should appropriately prosecute militia members and their leaders implicated in the killings. Among those who should be investigated is Youssouf Toloba, head of Dan Na Ambassagou, an ethnic Dogon militia, whose forces have been implicated in many killings in 2018.
In central Mali, ethnic Dogon militia killed at least 34 ethnic Peuhl civilians in three attacks in the Bankass administrative region, on December 5, 12 and 13. In northern Mali, armed Peuhl men attacked two Tuareg nomadic camps on December 12, leaving over 45 dead. The attacks followed many others in the past year arising from longstanding competition over land and water and the recent presence of Islamist armed groups.
“Militia killings of civilians in central and northern Mali are spiraling out of control,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities need to take prompt and effective action against the militias if they are going to bring the cycles of killings and reprisals to an end.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed six witnesses by telephone about the recent incidents and received lists of those killed.
In the Bankass administrative area on December 12, Dan Na Ambassagou attacked two villages and commandeered a large truck in the village of Gari. They took the truck, which carried over 60 residents who had fled the village of Mora fearing an imminent attack, and drove it to Wella village. There, the militiamen ordered the males to come out of the truck and killed seven men and boys. They also demanded a ransom in exchange for the freedom of the remaining civilians. Villagers said that the next day, December 13, Dan Na Ambassagou militia attacked Mora, allegedly killing at least a dozen people.
A witness, who fled Mora on December 12, said:
As we passed by Gari village, the militiamen shot at our truck, forcing us to stop. They ordered our driver out, then one of them got in and drove us to a big base, full of militiamen. They said they were going to kill all the males. They ordered them out, one by one, and then executed them on the spot, with military guns. Later, they put their bodies in a motorized tricycle and took them away. They held the rest of us – 30 women and 20 children – for three days, threatening and robbing us of our jewelry and shoes.
On December 5, Dogon militia killed 15 Peuhl civilians, including two women, in Lessagou-Peuhl village in the Bankass administrative area. Two witnesses said that the militiamen surrounded their village, overwhelming the small self-defense group, and then killed the villagers. One witness said, “A group of Da Na Ambassagou invaded the village…they were everywhere. They just started killing, the women were not spared.” Human Rights Watch was given a list of the dead. The witnesses said the killing was an apparent retaliation for the earlier killing of one Dogon militiaman by Peuhl armed men.
A December 12 attack in Tinabaw, in the northern Ménaka region near Mali’s border with Niger, left up to 47 men and boys, ranging in age from around 10 to 80, dead and others wounded. An elder said:
Around 6 or 7 a.m., two or three groups of armed Peuhl, carrying military weapons and riding on motorcycles, attacked two Tuareg nomadic camps – Tassalatine and Wakassa – which are separated by only a few hundred meters. They did not touch the women but killed every single man they found. It was a fast attack – the killing took place in under an hour.
The elder said the armed men set fire to two vehicles before retreating in the direction of Niger, and that many fields were burned. The incident was the latest in a series of attacks and reprisals between the Tuareg Doussak clan, who at times are supported by pro-government forces, and Peuhl villagers in Mali and Niger, who allegedly get backing from the Islamic State of Greater Sahara.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed in communal violence in Mali in 2018. Human Rights Watch released a report on December 7 that documented 202 killings in dozens of attacks in the Mopti region. So-called self-defense groups say they take security into their own hands because the government has failed to adequately protect their villages and property. Easy access to firearms, including military assault weapons, has contributed to the groups’ growth and militarization.
Dan Na Ambassagou, an umbrella group of Dogon village-based self-defense groups and traditional hunting societies, has been linked to numerous atrocities. Toloba, its leader, tops a military-like chain-of-command and its fighters carry Dan Na Ambassagou membership cards (Cartes De Combattants) signed by Toloba. A November news report described a meeting of representatives of 36 Dan Na Ambassagou militia camps that Toloba oversaw.
The government pledged to investigate the December incidents, and government authorities told Human Rights Watch that judicial inquiries have been opened and at least seven men have been arrested. A government statement noted that on December 17, the Malian army disarmed, detained, and turned over to judicial authorities three militiamen implicated in the killings and other crimes in Wella. Four other men arrested by gendarmes on December 13 for their involvement in burning Sadia, a Peuhl village in Bankass circle, were charged on December 17 for the destruction of property and illegal possession of firearms.
Mali’s security forces should impartially protect all civilians at risk from attacks by militias and Islamist armed groups, and judicial authorities should investigate and appropriately prosecute group members, including commanders responsible for abuses.
“The government’s announced investigations and arrests are meaningful steps toward accountability,” Dufka said. “But they need to be followed up with appropriate prosecutions of those responsible for these atrocities.”