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Burkina Faso: Unlawful Killings, ‘Disappearances’ by the Army

Respect Rights in Counterinsurgency Operations; Ensure Accountability

Burkina Faso soldiers patrol aboard a pickup truck on the road from Dori to the Goudebo refugee camp, on February 3, 2020. © 2020 OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images
  • The Burkina Faso armed forces summarily executed at least 9 men and forcibly disappeared and apparently killed 18 others in 3 incidents since February 2023 in Séno province.
  • Executions and disappearances by Burkina Faso’s army are war crimes that breed resentment among targeted populations, fueling recruitment to armed groups.
  • Burkina Faso should ensure that provost marshals, who are responsible for discipline in the armed forces and detainees’ rights, are present during all military operations.

(Nairobi) – The Burkina Faso armed forces summarily executed at least 9 men, and forcibly disappeared and apparently killed 18 others in 3 incidents since February 2023 in Séno province, Human Rights Watch said today. In one incident, soldiers severely beat eight children ages 6 to 16.

The military allegedly carried out these abuses during counterinsurgency operations against Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara who crossed into the country from Mali in 2016. The armed conflict has killed nearly 7,900 people since 2021 and forced over 2 million people from their homes. In April, Burkina Faso’s transitional military authorities announced a “general mobilization” as part of a plan to recapture territory lost to the armed groups, which may control up to 40 percent of the country’s territory. The plan seeks to create a “legal framework for all actions” taken against insurgents.

“Executions and disappearances by Burkina Faso’s army are not only war crimes, but they breed resentment among targeted populations that fuel recruitment to armed groups,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The Burkina Faso authorities should anchor their counterinsurgency strategy in protecting civilians, respecting human rights, and providing accountability for abuses.”

From February to May, Human Rights Watch interviewed in person and by telephone 30 people with knowledge of 4 incidents. Interviewees included 8 witnesses of abuses, 11 family members of victims, 6 members of Burkinabè civil society organizations, and 5 representatives of international organizations. On June 14, Human Rights Watch sent letters to the Burkinabè justice and defense ministers, sharing the findings about the alleged abuses and requesting responses to specific questions. Human Rights Watch received a response from the Burkinabè Minister of Justice and Human Rights on July 25, 2023, after the publication of this report.

On April 20, soldiers allegedly summarily executed at least 156 civilians, including 28 women and 45 children, in Karma village, Yatenga province, in one of the worst massacres in Burkina Faso since 2015.

On April 3 near Gangaol village, Séno province, soldiers arrested 10 ethnic Fulani men and put them in military vehicles. They were driven several kilometers and removed from the vehicles, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. “They pushed us out of their military vehicles and started shooting at us,” said a 40-year-old Fulani man. He believed that the soldiers did this “because they think all ethnic Fulani are complicit with Islamist fighters.”

All those allegedly arrested, tortured, and killed by the Burkinabè military in the incidents documented by Human Rights Watch were men from the pastoralist Fulani, or Peul, ethnic group. The Islamist armed groups in Burkina Faso have concentrated their recruitment efforts on Fulani communities by exploiting local grievances over poverty and public sector corruption.

In October 2022, Burkina Faso’s transitional military authorities launched a campaign to recruit 50,000 Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie, VDP). VDPs are militias supporting the security forces in their counterinsurgency operations. On May 30, Prime Minister Apollinaire Joachim Kyélem de Tambèla announced that the initial recruiting target had been reached and that the number of volunteers “is set to grow … to ensure security even in the most remote parts of the country.”

A March 2020 decree says that the militia members can carry weapons and are given 14 days of training “on the rules of engagement, discipline and respect of human rights.”

On February 15, soldiers accompanied by militia entered the village of Ekeou in Séno province and arrested at least 16 men. “The soldiers came with many VDPs from Falagountou village,” said a 70-year-old man whose adult son with a visual disability was among those arrested. “I went to the VDP base [in Falagountou] to seek information about my son and the VDPs responded by threatening me with death.” The body of the man’s son was found on May 26, along with those of at least eight of the other men arrested in Ekeou.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious abuses by the Burkinabè security forces and pro-government militias, including unlawful killings and enforced disappearances during counterinsurgency operations.

Islamist armed groups have also committed serious abuses, including summary executions, kidnapping, rapes and other sexual violence, pillaging, and attacks on education.

Speaking at the 52nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council on March 7, Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, expressed concern about military operations in Burkina Faso exacting “a growing toll on civilians.” He “urged the authorities to listen to the grievances people have regarding impunity” and to investigate alleged human rights abuses.

The fighting between the Burkina Faso government and Islamist armed groups qualifies as a non-international armed conflict under the laws of war. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and customary laws of war, which apply to non-state armed groups as well as national armed forces. Common Article 3 prohibits in all circumstances acts including murder, cruel, humiliating, and degrading treatment, and torture of anyone in custody. Serious violations of the laws of war committed by individuals with criminal intent are war crimes.

Burkina Faso is a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which gives the court the authority to exercise its jurisdiction over those responsible for the most serious crimes of international concern.

On February 16, Burkina Faso’s transitional parliament passed a bill to strengthen the role of provost marshals, who are responsible for discipline in the armed forces. The new law, if fully implemented, will better protect detainees’ rights during military operations and at military camps, Human Rights Watch said.

The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which has been present in Burkina Faso since December 2019, should fulfill its mandate to monitor and report on human rights violations, as well as provide technical and advisory support to the Burkinabè government.

“Burkina Faso’s transitional authorities should seek assistance from the UN human rights office to ensure that security force personnel and militia responsible for serious abuses are held accountable and that victims and their families see justice done and receive compensation,” Kaneza Nantulya said. “The authorities should also ensure that provost marshals, who are mandated to protect detainees’ rights, are always included in counterinsurgency operations.”

For detailed accounts of the abuses and other details, please see below. The names of those interviewed have been withheld for their protection.

Gangaol, Séno province, April 3

On April 3, a supply convoy heading to the town of Dori, escorted by a large number of military vehicles, motorbikes, and armored cars, stopped in Gangaol village and dropped off soldiers around the market area. Soldiers questioned people, asking them to show their identity cards, then broke into a home and pulled out 10 men. Soldiers beat the men and later summarily executed six of them. Human Rights Watch spoke to four people, including a woman who witnessed the beatings, a man who survived the attack, and two relatives of the victims.

Gangaol is in an area where both the Al-Qaeda affiliated Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims or JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) are known to recruit youth, carry out raids, and occupy checkpoints.

A 58-year-old woman who sells water and yogurt at the Gangaol market said that Islamist armed groups “regularly pass through Gangaol, they shop at the market.” Days before the incident “they massively came to Gangaol” to abduct a young man from a rival faction. However, the woman said, on April 3, “there were no armed men [Islamist armed fighters] around,” and “there was no confrontation between the soldiers and the armed men.”

The woman said that on April 3:

It was around 3:30 p.m., I was in the courtyard preparing for the prayer when I saw a group of soldiers coming. They wore sand-colored Burkinabè army uniforms and helmets and were heavily armed. They broke into a home and pulled 10 men out and started beating them. A soldier, who was frenziedly handling his weapon, asked me whether I knew these men. I replied “yes,” and I even cited the names of the villages where they came from and their professions. But the soldier replied: ‘You are lying.’ Then, they [soldiers] took them away in their vehicles.

A survivor of the roundup, a 40-year-old cattle broker, said:

I was with nine other friends in this house where we used to rest and pray. We had just finished our prayer when, all of a sudden, a soldier broke in and ordered us to go out … In the courtyard we found many Burkinabè soldiers. They pointed their guns at us. Some collected pieces of wood in the courtyard and started beating us with those. I was hit so hard that my right hand swelled.

The man said that soldiers arrested him and the nine others and put them in two “gray pickup vehicles” heading toward Dori. “We drove for about seven or eight kilometers. I was in the back of the pickup with two soldiers who spoke to me in Mooré [a common language in Burkina Faso], but I didn’t understand what they said.”

When the vehicles stopped, the survivor said, soldiers pushed the 10 men out of the vehicles, shot at one of them at close range and then at the others, who ran away, killing five more. Four survived, two of whom suffered serious injuries. The survivor said:

The soldiers shot and I ran. I saw the others falling on the ground, but I kept running fast until I reached a grove … I climbed up to a hill and there I found one of my friends who had been injured in the back. I told him to hide near a gully and wait … And then I walked to my village.

The brother of one of the victims, who saw the bodies of the six men and helped bury them, said:

One, his stomach exploded. Another, a bullet had passed through the chest from one side to the other. There was another who had been hit by bullets from behind. There were two more who were shot in the head and the neck. We buried them in three graves, two in each grave, with the help of people from the village next to where the incident happened.

The survivor and relatives of the victims provided identifying details of the six men killed, all of whom were ethnic Fulani, between ages 22 and 56. They said they did not file a complaint to the police or gendarmerie for fear of reprisals.

Ouro Hesso, Séno province, March 29

On March 29, soldiers killed a 47-year-old man and two children, ages 13 and 14, in Ouro Hesso, a neighborhood of Gangaol village. Human Rights Watch spoke to three relatives of the victims who saw the bodies and buried them the same day. They said that the soldiers responsible for the killings were part of a large military supply convoy heading to Kaya. “There were pickup vehicles, armored cars, tanks, and motorbikes,” said the man’s sister, “The soldiers on motorbikes left the main road, went down to the fields [where the victims were], and killed them.”

None of the three relatives witnessed the killings, but they fully believed soldiers killed their loved ones. The man’s uncle said:

I was chatting with [the man] waiting for a vehicle to take me to Dori. At about 8 a.m., the vehicle came, and I left [the man], who told me he was going to his fields to milk his cows. Less than 10 minutes later, I came across the military convoy. When I reached Dori, villagers called me to inform me about what happened, and I went back to Ouro Hesso and saw the three bodies. [The man] was shot in the back, his back was full of bullet wounds. [The boys] were shot everywhere except in the head.

Relatives buried the bodies the same day “in three different graves in [the man’s] field.” They also said they had no explanation for the reasons behind the killings. “The only reason is hatred,” the father of one of the boys said.

The man’s uncle said that on March 30 he went to the gendarmerie post in Dori to report the incident. “Gendarmes took my statement and said they would follow up,” he said. However, as of early June, he still had not received any information.

Ekeou, Séno province, February 15

On February 15, scores of Burkinabè soldiers accompanied by militia in a counterinsurgency operation arrested 16 men in Ekeou village and then headed to Goulgountou, a nearby village, and arrested 2 more men. The bodies of at least nine of those arrested were found on May 26 near the VDP base in Falagountou.

Soldiers also severely beat those arrested in Ekeou, along with eight children between the ages of 6 and 16 in the same village.

Ekeou is in an area where fighters from the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara are known to operate and carry out attacks.

Human Rights Watch spoke to six people, including three who witnessed the beatings and arrests in Ekeou, one who witnessed the arrests in Goulgountou, and two relatives of two of those arrested in Ekeou.

Witnesses said that the soldiers and militia members were in a large convoy with motorbikes, pickup vehicles, and armored cars and arrived in Ekeou around 9 a.m. “There were many VDPs with them,” said an Ekeou resident. “They were mostly from Falagountou, but there was at least one from our village, because I recognized him.”

A 70-year-old man, whose 34-year-old son with a visual disability was arrested, said:

They [the soldiers] were dressed in sand-colored Burkinabè army uniforms, were masked, and wore helmets. They stopped people in the streets, searched them, and asked for their identity cards … When they caught me, they ordered me to raise my hands, searched me, and then told me to run. I said I couldn’t run because of my age, so one of them took me on his motorbike to the borehole [a narrow water well]. There, I found eight children lying on the ground looking dead. They had been beaten by the soldiers. Then, the soldiers beat four men, including my son, blindfolded them, and took them away on their vehicles … My son is practically blind, he had an operation 49 days before this incident on his left eye and that day he was supposed to have surgery in the other eye.

A 64-year-old herder who witnessed the beatings of the children in Ekeou said:

I was at the borehole watering the animals. There were other men and eight children who were helping me pump the water because I don’t see well. The soldiers came with many vehicles and motorbikes. They stopped and divided us into three groups: those who had their identity cards, those who didn’t, and the children. They ordered the children to hold up their hands and started beating them intensely with wooden sticks; they hit them so hard that some sticks broke. One child ran and came to me. A soldier followed him and hit him on his head with a stick several times so that the child started bleeding profusely from his temple. Then, soldiers beat four men, covered their eyes with their clothes, and arrested them.

Another man said that soldiers threatened him and brutalized a sick man:

When the soldiers and VDPs arrived, I was in my courtyard. They pointed their guns at me and ordered me to sit in a corner. Then, they asked me whether armed men were present in Ekeou. I replied “No,” and they said I should not lie otherwise they would arrest me … They broke into the home next to mine and pulled a man with a physical disability out. This man had paralysis on one side of his body for almost two years, he died two days after the military operation. Soldiers pulled him out of his bed, and also his son who was supporting him. They blindfolded the son and left the man with the physical disability in the courtyard. Then, they took the son away on their vehicles and ordered me not to move.

Relatives and other Ekeou residents provided identifying details of all 18 men arrested; all but one were ethnic Fulani, and the other man was ethnic Tuareg, and all were between ages 30 and 65. The people interviewed also said that two days after the military operation, four older men from Ekeou went to Falagountou, where there is a VDP camp, to find out about their loved ones and about the other men arrested, but the militia members threatened them.

One of the men said:

When we were approaching Falagountou, we were caught by the VDPs, who threatened us with death and took us to their camp to see their boss. They questioned us about our intentions, and we explained we wanted to know about our sons and brothers arrested two days before. They didn’t give us any information. Then, one of them fired into the air and we were all scared … We returned without having accomplished anything.

Relatives said that during the weeks following the arrests they also sought information from the gendarmerie in Dori, the prosecutor of the High Court in Dori, the regional human rights office in Dori, and the governor of the Sahel region, but that they had not received any information from the authorities.

On May 26, a herder from Ekeou discovered 17 bodies near the VDP base in Falagountou. He informed the relatives of those arrested in Ekeou on February 15. Relatives identified 9 bodies as belonging to the group of 18 men arrested in Ekeou and Goulgountou. The remaining bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition and could not be identified, relatives said. However, relatives believe they are of the other people arrested in Ekeou on February 15.

Relatives said that from May 29 through 31, they reported the discovery of the bodies to the prosecutor of the high court in Dori as well as to the gendarmerie in Dori and that they “received permission” to bury them on June 5.

Zoundwéogo province, January

Human Rights Watch spoke to two relatives of two ethnic Peul brothers who were arrested in late January in the province of Zoundwéogo. One reportedly died in detention, while the other appears to have been tortured but remains in custody. Key details of this case have been withheld because of concerns for the safety of the surviving brother.

The relatives said that two members of the security forces and two militia members arrested the two brothers on January 30, and held them overnight in a local gendarmerie station. One of the relatives said that when the family sought to file a complaint, a judicial source told them that the two men had then been taken to a military camp in the region, where one of the brothers died on February 2. The relative said that they were eventually allowed to see the surviving brother, who was sent back to the local gendarmerie station, in the presence of gendarmes, after the gendarmes brought him back from the hospital:

He was in a critical state, given how traumatized he was ... He couldn’t speak, he was overwhelmed … He wasn’t himself. Even I didn’t recognize him ... His face was swollen, his hands … His hands had [previously] been tied and his hand didn’t move. He couldn’t walk – he limped ... We asked him: “And your brother?” He said he doesn’t know where his brother is. We asked him what happened, he said he didn’t know.

Since then, a relative said the surviving brother, who is still in detention, has somewhat recovered physically but remains “traumatized.” As for the dead brother, the relative said, “We haven’t been able to see his grave.”

As a result of the events, a relative said, “Everyone … [in] the family … is in fear. In the village, almost all [the relatives] have left. We moved after the event.”

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