(Nairobi) – Malian armed forces and associated foreign soldiers allegedly summarily executed an estimated 300 civilian men, some of them suspected Islamist fighters, in the central Malian town of Moura in late March 2022, Human Rights Watch said today. The men were among those detained during a military operation that began on March 27. The incident is the worst single atrocity reported in Mali’s decade-long armed conflict.
Human Rights Watch investigations revealed that over the course of several days in late March, Malian army forces and foreign soldiers – identified by several sources as Russians – executed in small groups several hundred people who had been rounded up in Moura. A Malian defense ministry statement on April 1 said that from March 23 to 31, the army had killed 203 “terrorists” and arrested 51 more. The statement said the army had acted on intelligence suggesting that armed Islamists were planning a “meeting with different Katibats [battalions]” in Moura.
“Abuses by armed Islamist groups is no justification at all for the military’s deliberate slaughter of people in custody,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The Malian government is responsible for this atrocity, the worst in Mali in a decade, whether carried about by Malian forces or associated foreign soldiers.”
Human Rights Watch spoke with 27 people with knowledge of the killings, including witnesses from the Moura area and traders, community leaders, foreign diplomats, and security analysts. Moura is a town of about 10,000 residents located in the Djenné administrative area of central Mali, which since 2015 has been the epicenter of conflict-related violence, abuses, and displacement.
A resident who witnessed numerous executions before being freed by soldiers on March 31 said: “I lived in terror, each minute, each second thinking it would be my turn to be taken away and executed. Even after being told to go, I feared it was a trap. As I walked away, slowly, I held my hand on my chest, holding my breath, and waiting for a bullet to pass through my body.”
The killings occurred amid a dramatic spike in unlawful killings of civilians and suspects since late 2021 by armed Islamist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), and by Malian government security forces. Armed Islamists have also killed scores of security force personnel since the beginning of 2022. Human Rights Watch is separately investigating the alleged killing of several hundred civilians over several weeks in March by alleged ISGS forces in Mali’s Menaka region.
Since January, residents in the area have described to Human Rights Watch the presence of scores of white, non-French-speaking armed men participating in military operations in and around the central Malian towns of Sofara, Ségou, Mopti, Diabaly, and Belidanédji among others. Residents said they believed these soldiers were Russians, in part because Mali’s transition government said in December 2021, that “Russian trainers” were in Mali as part of a bilateral agreement with Russia.
The vast majority of those killed by the Malian military and allied forces were men from the pastoralist Peuhl, or Fulani, ethnic group. The armed Islamist groups have concentrated their recruitment efforts on this group by exploiting their grievances with the government and other ethnic groups. All of the survivors and witnesses said that members of the Malian army and “white soldiers” killed the men.
Villagers said that Moura has been under the quasi-control of Islamist fighters linked to AQIM who regularly imposed taxes (zakat) on villagers, threatened civilians refusing to adhere to their strict behavioral code, and imposed Sharia (Islamic law) in courts that did not adhere to fair trial standards.
All parties to the armed conflict in Mali, including foreign fighters, are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, or the laws of war. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international law. Common Article 3 prohibits abuses against “[p]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities,” including captured combatants and detained civilians, such as “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.” The deliberate killing or other abuse of a person in custody is a war crime. Commanders whose forces commit war crimes that go undeterred or unpunished may be criminally liable as a matter of command responsibility.
“The Malian government should urgently and impartially investigate these mass killings, including the role of foreign soldiers,” Dufka said. “For such investigations to be sufficiently independent and credible, the authorities should seek assistance from the African Union and the United Nations.”
For detailed accounts of the attacks, please see below. The names of those interviewed have been withheld for their protection.
Military Operation in Moura
Nineteen witnesses including those from Moura and six other villages told Human Rights Watch that on March 27 at about 10 a.m., soldiers arriving by helicopter near Moura’s animal market exchanged gunfire for some 15 minutes with about 30 armed Islamist fighters, whom the villagers identified by their clothing. Traders at the market and security sources said that several Islamist fighters, a few civilians, and two foreign soldiers were killed during this and another exchange of gunfire that day.
A trader said:
The jihadists [armed Islamists] were buying and selling in the market and when the helicopters showed up, the jihadists started firing and the army fired back. Everyone fled in panic, diving for cover. The villagers and traders tried to flee Moura, but by that time a few helicopters had landed and soldiers were everywhere. Another helicopter flew overhead, firing at people trying to escape. All the traders who’d come to market were trapped in the village.
Witnesses said that over the next several hours, white soldiers and to a lesser extent Malian soldiers who had arrived on the helicopters, including some with parachutes, deployed throughout the town, blocking off the exits. They said the helicopters returned at least once to bring additional troops.
Multiple security sources who spoke to Human Rights Watch said the operation involved over 100 Russian troops and numerous other Malian soldiers. Witnesses said the foreign soldiers appeared to be more numerous during the first two days of the operation.
After surrounding the area, the soldiers patrolled through town, executing several men as they tried to flee, and detaining hundreds of unarmed men from the market and their homes. The detained men included Moura residents; traders from surrounding hamlets, villages, and towns who had come to attend the weekly Sunday market day; and some known Islamist fighters who had hidden their firearms and attempted to blend in with the population, the witnesses said.
The government forces took the detained men to an area east of the town, confiscated their telephones, and divided them into at least three groups. They ordered the detainees to lie down in the sun. The soldiers held them there until around 11 a.m. on March 31. During this time, the soldiers searched the town and, according to several residents, confiscated several firearms. They also allegedly stole jewelry, money, and other items from some households and burned dozens of motorcycles.
Over the four days, the soldiers ordered the detained men in groups of 4, 6, or up to 10, to stand up and walk for between several dozen and several hundred meters. There, the Malian and foreign soldiers summarily executed them. The witnesses said some victims were shot in the head, while other groups of men were sprayed by gunfire. One resident said, “the sound of gunfire rang out in our village from Monday to Thursday.”
A trader who had come to Moura from a nearby village to buy livestock on March 27 said:
White men speaking a bizarre language deployed throughout town. I wanted to flee but was afraid I’d be shot by the helicopter overhead. The white men arrested and then took me to a place near the sand dunes where I found hundreds of others. A Malian soldier kept saying, “You kill us at night, then by day pretend to be civilians.” Each night people were taken out and shot. On Wednesday [March 30], they took 10 men including the friend I’d come to the market with. I couldn’t look … I was afraid that if I looked at them, they’d pick me too. Throughout the different nights – that’s when most of the killing was done – I heard people whispering, “Oh God, they just took Hamidou or Hassan for execution.”
Witnesses offered various explanations for how the soldiers chose the detainees for execution. Several believed it was on the basis of what the detainee was wearing. One witness said, “Some they killed were really jihadists, but many others were killed simply because they had been forced by the same jihadists to cut their pants and grow their beards.” Others said it was on the basis of ethnicity that people were singled out. “The soldiers appeared to target the Peuhl and let the others go,” said a villager. Other witnesses speculated that the army might have had informants identifying villagers who were armed Islamists and who supported them.
A witness detained with a group of about 50 detainees from several ethnic groups described seeing 17 men taken about 200 meters away and executed over 2 days. “They took out five, five and later seven. All of those killed were Peuhl.” he said.
Another man said:
I was one of 200 men in one place, detained under the scorching sun for three days. At around 11 p.m. on Monday [March 28], four whites and one Malian soldier ordered nine men to get up … [P]ointing at them one-by-one, they said, in Bambara, “You get up. … You, get up.” They ordered them to walk a few hundred meters. And then, Pa! Pa! Pa! I couldn’t see who executed them but we saw their bodies after daybreak on Tuesday. On Tuesday night it was the same thing: this time they took 13 a little further [away]. And again on Wednesday.
A trader who had come to the Moura market from a neighboring village described seeing 19 men, including two of his brothers, executed over a four-day period by white soldiers whom he believed, as a result of radio and social reports about the presence of foreign troops in Mali, were Russian:
My two brothers and I were in a friend’s house, drinking tea, waiting for the market to get going when we heard shooting. Seven Russians approached, gesturing for us to get up. There were no Malian soldiers with them. They searched us and the house, then took us east of the village, near the river, where we found another 100 men.
A few hours later, 10 or so more Russians, and a Malian army interpreter, asked if we knew why we were arrested. They lectured us about how everyone in that zone, everyone from the Peuhl community, had taken up the jihadist cause. Another group of Russians pointed at my brothers and another man. I thought they were going for interrogation. They took them several meters away and executed them, point blank. Over the next few days, I saw others – in groups of two or three killed the same way … nineteen in total.
Numerous other men were killed inside the village, including those who had refused an “order,” spread by word of mouth, to present themselves at the site where the other men were being detained.
One resident said:
Around 11 a.m. on Sunday [March 27], three white soldiers arrested me from my home, motioning for me to follow them. I was taken to an empty house where I found another 100 men. They didn’t hurt or interrogate us and we were released around 4 p.m. On Monday, around 8 a.m., women who’d been bringing food to their detained husbands brought a message: that the soldiers said all those detained in the house the previous day should present themselves. Those who didn’t, would be killed. I went. But after the operation ended, I saw a friend who’d refused their order – he was lying in blood in the street.
Two witnesses said that on the first day of the operation, about 40 detainees were ordered to dig three large mass graves several hundred meters away from where the hundreds of detainees were being held. Several witnesses said most executions occurred near or in the mass graves. “They ordered people up, ‘you, you, you …’ then ordered them to sit or lie down near the graves, and shot them, said one. Witnesses said that some of the bodies were later burned.
Witnesses said the killing stopped on the morning of March 31. Two men described hearing an order to stop the killing being transmitted by walkie-talkie: “On Thursday morning, after so many people were lying dead all around us, I heard in Bambara [language], a man I assumed was a Malian officer saying, ‘Stop killing people, let them go’ …. This is how we were saved. Honestly, if it were not for this order. I fear I would be dead,” one said.
The number of detainees allegedly summarily executed during the operation varied. Witnesses said it was difficult to ascertain how many men, many superimposed, had been buried in the three mass graves. One resident told Human Rights Watch he had counted 241 men that were either already buried or that he helped bury in common graves:
We gathered many dead from the village, from the street, from inside houses, and, of those killed near where the detainees were being held. Even as we were burying people, I heard villagers saying, “Oh God, I found another five here” and another who’d come from the bush saying, “I found four more dead a few hundred meters away.”
Another person said that about 40 more bodies were buried on or around April 2.
Several villagers said some of the bodies had been set on fire. “We heard the pam! pam! pam! [of gunfire] all day, and later saw fires burning where the bodies lay,” one resident said. “When we collected the bodies for burial, so many had been burned beyond recognition,” said another.
Two town elders said they had spoken with numerous witnesses to determine the number of dead, and said they believed at least 300 people had been killed. The witnesses interviewed also cited that figure.
Residents from several surrounding towns said that loved ones who had gone to attend the Moura market had not returned, and that they feared they had been executed. A Malian elder from Mopti region said: “I’ve been getting calls from people from a dozen villages saying their men had not returned home after market day. From one village, 45 men were missing.” A resident of Toguèré-Coumbé village said, “Two of my cousins and four other friends did not come home.”
“Yes, the jihadists are there, many of them, and yes there was an exchange of fire and several jihadists died,” a trader from Moura said. “But what kind of war is it when soldiers kill hundreds of unarmed people who just happen to live in a jihadist-controlled zone.”