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Burkina Faso: Atrocities by Armed Islamists, Security Forces

Dramatic Increase in Rights Abuse in Northern Sahel Region

Burkina Faso Soldiers take part in a training exercise in 2017, in Burkina Faso.  (U.S. Army Photo by Sgt Benjamin Northcutt 3rd Special Forces Group (Airborne) Public Affairs Sergeant/released) © 2017 AB Forces News Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Atrocities by Islamist armed groups in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel Region and by security forces during counterterrorism operations have left scores dead and created widespread fear and displacement, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. The violence has forced tens of thousands of villagers to flee since early 2019.

The 56-page report, “‘We Found Their Bodies Later that Day’: Atrocities by Armed Islamists and Security Forces in Burkina Faso’s Sahel Region,” documents over 40 killings by armed Islamist groups, mostly of people suspected of collaborating with the government, and the execution by Burkinabè security forces of over 115 men accused of supporting or harboring the armed Islamists. The Burkinabè government has promised to investigate the allegations. Key international actors, including the United Nations Security Council, which is visiting Burkina Faso in late March, should urge the government to follow through on this commitment.

“Scores of people have been murdered in what amounts to a dramatic deterioration in the rights situation in northern Burkina Faso,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Villagers are living in fear as both armed Islamists and government forces have demonstrated utter disregard for human life.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 92 victims and witnesses to the abuses, as well as community leaders, government officials, and security analysts, among others. The abuses documented occurred in 32 villages in the Sahel region, from mid-2018 until February 2019. The research builds on Human Rights Watch research in Burkina Faso from 2018.  

Beginning in 2016, armed Islamist groups linked to both Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) have attacked army bases, police, and gendarme posts, and purely civilian targets in Burkina Faso. While the violence and insecurity have spread throughout the country, the epicenter remains the northern Sahel region, which borders Mali and Niger.

Witnesses described the alleged killing by armed Islamists of 42 civilians, apparently because of their actual or suspected ties to the government, or for supporting the formation of a self-defense group. Most of the victims were from the ethnic Foulse or Bella communities. Witnesses said the Islamists had abducted and intimidated local leaders, pillaged livestock, and commandeered ambulances. They also said the Islamists had forbade villagers from celebrating marriages and baptisms and, at times, women from socializing or selling in markets. 

One villager said that armed Islamists opened fire inside his home, killing three members of his family and wounding two others, during a January assault on the village of Gasseliki that left 12 people dead.

“They kicked the door in, went room to room and found us hiding,” he said. “Then they opened fire in a hail of bullets killing three men.” Another witness described the Islamists’ killing of nine men, including two brothers, during a January 27 attack on Sikiré village.

“People are dominated by fear,” a local farmer said. “No man over 18 dares sleep in his house anymore for fear of being kidnapped or worse.” Many villagers described large-scale looting of livestock, undermining the livelihoods of entire villages.

Witnesses also described 19 incidents in which Burkina Faso security forces allegedly summarily executed a total of 116 men. They said that all but a few of these incidents involved a detachment of about 100 gendarmes based in the town of Arbinda since late August.

All of the victims were last seen in the custody of government security forces, and when their bodies were later found, the majority had been shot in the head or chest. Most were from the Peuhl ethnic group. Witnesses described large operations involving dozens of security force members traveling on motorcycles and vehicles and, in several cases, operating small drones.

Witnesses provided lists of the victims and maps indicating where the bodies of the men were found and where they were buried.

“We found Hamadoun, 72-years-old…under a tree with both knees and his forehead on the ground,” said a man who searched for nine men detained by security forces in February and later buried their bodies. “It seemed like he’d asked to pray before being shot.”

A witness to the security forces’ October detention of 14 men who were later found dead said, “They ripped their turbans to bind their eyes and hands, ordering them into the truck. Minutes after they left, we heard gunfire and said, ‘Oh God, our people are dead.’”

Villagers consistently decried being caught between armed Islamists’ threats to execute those who collaborated with the government, and the security forces, who expected them to provide intelligence about the presence of armed groups and meted out collective punishment when they didn’t. 

“The killing is driving people straight into the arms of the jihadists and guaranteeing that this problem will go on for many years to come,” a civil society leader said.

On March 8, Human Rights Watch sent a letter detailing its major findings and recommendations to the Burkinabè government. On March 18, the defense minister responded on behalf of the government, promising to investigate the alleged abuses.

The government should thoroughly investigate the alleged human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said. Armed Islamist groups should cease all extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, and other human rights abuses. Burkina Faso’s international partners should privately and publicly press the government to stop security force abuses and conduct credible investigations.

“Confronting the expansion of armed Islamists in Burkina Faso by executing suspects will only fuel the cycle of violence and abuse,” Dufka said. “The government should stop the abuse and commit itself to a lawful and rights-respecting counterterrorism strategy.” 

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