(Bamako) – Armed groups in Mali have escalated their attacks on civilians, massacring people in their villages and executing men pulled from public transportation vehicles based on their ethnicity, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Many villagers were burned alive, while others were blown up by explosive devices. Malian authorities should urgently step up investigations and prosecutions of those responsible.
The 90-page report, “‘How Much More Blood Must be Spilled?’: Atrocities Against Civilians in Central Mali,” is based on witness accounts from dozens of attacks by armed groups in 2019, during which at least 456 civilians were killed, and hundreds wounded. The epicenter of the violence was in central Mali; and 2019 was the deadliest for civilians since the advent of Mali’s 2012 political and military crisis. Attacks against civilians have continued in 2020.
“Armed groups are killing, maiming, and terrorizing communities throughout central Mali with no apparent fear of being held to account,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “The human toll in shattered lives is mounting as the deadly cycles of violence and revenge continue.”
Human Rights Watch visited central Mali and the capital, Bamako, four times in 2019, and also conducted phone interviews. Human Rights Watch interviewed 147 victims of abuses and witnesses, as well as leaders from the ethnic Peuhl, Dogon, and Tellem communities, security and justice officials, diplomats, aid workers, and security analysts, among others.
Violence in central Mali has escalated steadily since 2015, when armed Islamist groups allied to Al-Qaeda began moving from northern into central Mali. Since then, they and groups recently allied with the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara have attacked government security forces and committed atrocities against civilians. The documented attacks took place in more than 50 hamlets and villages primarily near Mali’s border with Burkina Faso and have led to widespread displacement and hunger.
The recruitment by armed Islamists of pastoralist Peuhl, or Fulani, has inflamed tensions with agrarian communities, which formed self-defense groups in the face of inadequate government security. Easy access to military weapons and impunity have contributed to the lethality of the attacks.
Dogon self-defense group attacks on the Peuhl community for their perceived support of armed Islamists included 2019’s first atrocity – the January 1 killing of 39 Peuhl civilians in Koulogon – as well as Mali’s worst atrocity in recent years: the March 23 killing of over 150 Peuhl civilians in Ogossagou.
A mother from Ogossagou said that armed men set her house on fire and then ripped her 5-year-old son from her arms as she fled: “They shot my little boy and only spared my second child when they realized she wasn’t a boy.” Other survivors said armed men threw grenades into houses, including the home of a religious leader filled with villagers seeking refuge. “Windows were popping, there was the sound of fire and explosions and screaming,” one survivor said.
Communal attacks by armed Peuhl men include the June 9 massacre of 35 Dogon civilians, in Sobane-Da, and the killing of traders returning from local markets. Describing a family who perished in Sobane-Da, a witness said: “Their charred bodies were entwined, clutching each other, like it was their last moment together.”
Atrocities by armed Islamists include the killing of at least 38 civilians in simultaneous attacks on Yoro and Gangafani II villages. A witness described the killing of a family member: “He grabbed his 4-year-old, but the child cried out, alerting the jihadists who kicked in the door, dragged him out, and shot him in the head.” Other civilians were executed after being dragged out of public transport vehicles.
Over 50 other civilians were killed by explosive devices allegedly planted by armed Islamists including 17 people who died when the boobytrapped body of a man with a mental disability, allegedly killed a few days earlier by armed Islamists, exploded as his family was burying him.
Human Rights Watch believes the total number of civilians killed in communal and armed Islamist attacks in 2019 is much higher than those documented, given the relentless “tit-for-tat” killings of people as they tended cattle or worked in their fields.
The Malian government promised to bring those responsible for the worst atrocities to justice. In 2019, Malian courts opened several investigations and convicted about 45 people for smaller incidents of communal violence. However, judicial authorities had yet to question let alone prosecute powerful armed group leaders implicated in numerous massacres.
Many villagers said the lack of accountability was emboldening armed groups to commit further abuses. Since 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented the killings by ethnic militias and armed Islamists of almost 800 civilians in central Mali. Only two murder trials have taken place. “People have learned they can kill and burn and destroy without consequence,” said an elder from central Mali.
Malian authorities should devote greater energy and resources to appropriately investigate and prosecute all those responsible for the serious abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Mali’s international partners should increase support for the judiciary in central Mali and the Bamako-based Specialized Judicial Unit for Terrorism and Organized Crime, whose mandate was expanded in 2019 to include war crimes and other grave international offenses.
“The Malian government’s failure to punish armed groups on all sides is emboldening them to commit further atrocities,” Dufka said. “The government, with the help of its international partners, needs to do much more to prosecute those responsible for crimes and dismantle abusive armed groups.”
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The press release was updated to add "in front of his children" in the following sentence: A witness described the killing of a family member: “He grabbed his 4-year-old, but the child cried out, alerting the jihadists who kicked in the door, dragged him out, and shot him in the head, in front of his children.”