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The women’s mosque in the center of Soro village, Thiou district, northern Yatenga province, Burkina Faso. March 2024 © 2024 Private

(Nairobi) – The Burkina Faso military summarily executed at least 223 civilians, including at least 56 children, in two villages on February 25, 2024, Human Rights Watch said today.

These mass killings, among the worst army abuse in Burkina Faso since 2015, appear to be part of a widespread military campaign against civilians accused of collaborating with Islamist armed groups, and may amount to crimes against humanity. Soldiers killed 44 people, including 20 children, in Nondin village, and 179 people, including 36 children, in the nearby Soro village, of Thiou district in the northern Yatenga province.

Burkinabè authorities should urgently undertake a thorough investigation into the massacres, with support from the African Union and the United Nations to protect its independence and impartiality.

“The massacres in Nondin and Soro villages are just the latest mass killings of civilians by the Burkina Faso military in their counterinsurgency operations,” said Tirana Hassan, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The repeated failure of the Burkinabè authorities to prevent and investigate such atrocities underlines why international assistance is critical to support a credible investigation into possible crimes against humanity.”

Location of the villages of Soro and Nondin, Burkina Faso. © 2024 Human Rights Watch

From February 28 to March 31, Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 people by telephone, including 14 witnesses to the killings, 3 local civil society activists, and 3 members of international organizations. Human Rights Watch verified videos and photographs shared by survivors of the aftermath of the killings and injured survivors.

On February 24 and 25, Islamist armed groups carried out several attacks across the country on military targets, including barracks and bases, and on civilian infrastructure, such as religious sites, killing scores of civilians, soldiers, and militia members. Burkinabè Defense Minister Mahamoudou Sana, in a February 26 statement to the media, denounced what he described as “simultaneous and coordinated” attacks by Islamist fighters, but made no mention of the mass killings of civilians in Nondin and Soro.

On March 1, Aly Benjamin Coulibaly, prosecutor of the high court in Ouahigouya said in a statement that he received reports of “massive deadly attacks” on the villages of Komsilga, Nodin and Soro in Yatenga province on February 25, with a provisional toll of “around 170 people executed,” and others injured, and that he ordered an investigation. On March 4, Coulibaly said that he had visited the sites of the incidents along with the judicial police on February 29, but indicated that he was not able to locate the dozens of bodies he had been told were there.

Villagers said that on February 25, military forces first stopped in Nondin, then in Soro, five kilometers away. They believe that the killings were perpetrated in retaliation for an attack by Islamist fighters against a Burkinabè military and militia camp outside the provincial capital, Ouahigouya, about 25 kilometers from Nondin, earlier that day. “Before the soldiers started shooting at us, they accused us of being complicit with the jihadists [Islamist fighters],” said a 32-year-old woman survivor from Soro who was shot in the leg. “They said we do not cooperate with them [the army] because we did not inform them about the jihadists’ movements.”

On February 25, the Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina (RTB), the government-run national television network, reported “a major attack” by Islamist fighters around 7 a.m. “against the mixed battalion” military base in Ouahigouya. It said that soldiers of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (Batallion d’Intervention Rapide, BIR), a special forces unit involved in counterinsurgency operations, “chased the fighters fleeing towards Thiou” and “neutralized the maximum of those who could not” flee. The report, which made no reference to civilian casualties, stated that soldiers requested that aerial drones do not follow the fighters they were chasing, and to “leave this group to them,” perhaps indicating that they did not want the drones to record what followed.

Witnesses said that between 8:30 and 9 a.m., about 30 minutes after a group of armed Islamist fighters passed near the village yelling “Allah Akbar!” (God is great), a military convoy with over 100 Burkinabè soldiers arrived on motorbikes, in pickup trucks, and in at least two armored cars in Nondin’s Basseré neighborhood located near the asphalted National Road 2. They said the soldiers went door-to-door, ordering people out of their homes and to show their identity cards. They then rounded up villagers in groups before opening fire on them. Soldiers also shot at people trying to flee or hide.

Villagers described a similar scenario in Soro, where soldiers arrived about an hour later and shot people who had been rounded up or who tried to hide or escape. “They separated men and women in groups,” said a 48-year-old farmer. “I was in the garden with other people when they [soldiers] called us. As we started moving forward, they opened fire on us indiscriminately. I ran behind a tree, and this saved my life.”

Human Rights Watch obtained two lists of the victims’ names compiled by survivors and others who helped bury the bodies. Witnesses said that survivors and people from nearby villages buried the bodies in Nondin in three mass graves and those in Soro in eight. Some bodies in both villages, they said, were buried individually since they were recovered days later in the bush.

Reported number of bodies and location of the eight mass graves visible on a video shared with Human Rights Watch. Six of the mass graves are clearly visible on satellite imagery of March 15, 2024. Two others are hidden by the shadows of buildings. Image © 2024 Planet Labs PBC. Graphic and analysis © 2024 Human Rights Watch

On February 26, a group of family members of victims from Nondin and Soro went to the gendarmerie brigade in Ouahigouya to make a statement, leading the high court prosecutor to announce an investigation.

On March 21, following a brief visit to Burkina Faso, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said in a statement that he received “assurances” from the Burkinabè president “that steps are being taken to ensure” that the conduct of security forces “fully complies with international humanitarian and international human rights laws … against the backdrop of reports of serious violations by security forces … which need to be thoroughly investigated and acted upon.”

Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious abuses by the Burkinabè army during counterterrorism operations, including summary executions and enforced disappearances as well as indiscriminate drone strikes.

All parties to the armed conflict in Burkina Faso are bound by international humanitarian law, which includes Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international lawCommon Article 3 prohibits murder, torture, and ill-treatment of civilians and captured fighters. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes. Commanders who knew or should have known about serious abuses by their forces and do not take appropriate action may be prosecuted as a matter of command responsibility.

Burkina Faso is a state party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provide for the right to life and prohibit extrajudicial executions. Burkina Faso in 2004 ratified the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court.

Crimes against humanity are a series of offenses, including murder, that are knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population. “Widespread” refers to the scale of the acts or number of victims. A “systematic” attack indicates a pattern or methodical plan.

The Burkina Faso government has an obligation to exercise criminal jurisdiction over those who carry out grave international crimes. War crimes and crimes against humanity are crimes of universal jurisdiction, which allows other countries to prosecute them regardless of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of victims and perpetrators.

“The Burkinabé army has repeatedly committed mass atrocities against civilians in the name of fighting terrorism with almost no one held to account,” Hassan said. “Victims, survivors and their families are entitled to see those responsible for grave abuses brought to justice. Support from AU or UN investigators and legal experts is the best way to ensure credible investigations and fair trials.”

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

Armed Conflict in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso forces have been fighting an insurgency by the Al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen, JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) since the armed groups entered the country from Mali in 2016. The two armed groups control large swathes of territory, attacking civilians as well as government security forces.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a disaggregated data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project, recorded violent events linked to this conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 8,000 people in 2023 and over 430 in January 2024 alone.

On November 26, 2023, the JNIM attacked military barracks in the besieged northern town of Djibo, Sahel region, and broke into homes and a camp for internally displaced people, killing at least 40 civilians. On February 25, the ISGS claimed responsibility for an attack on a church in the town of Essakane, Sahel region, that killed 15 civilians.

Islamist armed groups have also besieged cities, towns, and villages across Burkina Faso, blocking food, other necessities, and humanitarian aid to the civilian population and causing starvation and illness among residents and displaced people, violations of international humanitarian law that amount to war crimes.

Since 2022, Burkina Faso has experienced two military coups. The military authorities have relied heavily on militias to counter attacks from Islamist armed groups. In October 2022, the government began a campaign to bolster these militias by recruiting 50,000 civilian auxiliaries, called Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie, VDPs).

Since the fighting expanded, the military has been linked to mass killings of civilians for which no one has been held accountable. On April 20, 2023, soldiers killed 83 men, 28 women, and 45 children, burned homes, and looted property in and near the village of Karma, in Yatenga province. The authorities announced an investigation but have not followed up.

On November 12, the European Union called for an investigation into a massacre in the Centre Nord region in which about 100 people were reportedly killed. The government said that on November 5, unidentified gunmen killed at least 70 people, mainly older people and children, in Zaongo village, and that the incident was being investigated. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any progress in the investigation. Human Rights Watch spoke to witnesses who said the army was responsible for the massacre in Zaongo, which international media corroborated.

On December 19, 2023, media reported that hundreds of civilians were killed in several villages around the town of Djibo, Sahel region. The authorities said that Islamist armed groups were responsible, but local sources, including some who spoke to Human Rights Watch, pointed to responsibility by the army.

The conflict has forced two million people from their homes and led to the shutdown of over 6,100 schools since 2021.

In September 2023, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger created a mutual defense pact, the Alliance of Sahel States, and, in January, the three countries decided to withdraw from the Economic Community of West African (ECOWAS) regional bloc. On March 6, the army chiefs of the three countries announced the creation of a joint force to fight Islamist armed groups.

A Retaliatory Attack

Nondin and Soro are among the many villages within Thiou district that the JNIM has besieged. On February 25, JNIM fighters attacked a government militia base next to a military camp in Ouahigouya, killing and injuring several militiamen.

Witnesses and residents believe the killings were perpetrated in retaliation for allegedly collaborating with the Islamist armed groups.

A 50-year-old farmer from Nondin said:

I was sitting in front of a kiosk when the jihadists came back from Ouahigouya shouting victory, and “Allah akbar!” When they arrived, they split into two groups. One continued toward Thiou and the second took the rural path that starts from our neighborhood and crosses the whole village to go to the village of Sim. About 30 minutes later a group of heavily armed soldiers came, followed by another group … They said: “Out! Come out! You support the jihadists! You’ll see!”

A 43-year-old man working in a gold mine just outside Soro said:

I saw the jihadists passing by and yelling “Allah Akhbar!” Thirty minutes later, the first group of soldiers came and stopped by the mine. One asked me: “Why didn’t you inform us when you saw the terrorists passing by?” I replied that there is no telephone network here, so we couldn’t call. They didn’t say anything and continued toward Soro.

“They [soldiers] said we collaborate with the jihadists,” said a 36-year-old in Soro. “They said we didn’t inform them about the movements of the jihadists.”

Killings in Nondin

Survivors described scenes of horror with soldiers ordering people out from their homes, rounding them up, and executing them. They said soldiers killed several dozen people in less than an hour, shooting at groups or individuals running away.

A 61-year-old man, who was injured and lost 11 family members, including his wife, son, brothers, and nephews, said that masked Burkinabè soldiers speaking Moré, a language widely spoken in Burkina Faso, “with an accent from Ouahigouya,” came to his courtyard and ordered his family out of the house:

They made us sit down … and then they opened fire on us. They shot “Pa! Pa! Pa!” They shot us like that, killing all the members of my family. I was injured in the armpit because I raised my hands to ask for “mercy.” One bullet passed through the armpit, and another bullet pierced my right thigh.

A 60-year-old farmer who hid in his home said:

They showed no mercy. They shot at everything that moved, they killed men, women, and children alike. Some [soldiers] wore masks on their faces. They were heavily armed. I saw a soldier asking a woman for something and then executing her point blank.”

A human rights defender who visited the morgue of the regional hospital in Ouahigouya on February 26 said:

I saw more than 20 bodies of whom at least 5 [were] women. The driver of the ambulance told me these were the bodies of the people killed in Nondin and of the VDPs killed at their base in Ouahigouya the previous day. I also spoke to some relatives of the victims from Nondin. The morgue is very small and could not take more than six bodies. The other bodies were in an adjacent room. Some bodies were covered, others not. I could clearly see the marks of the bullets on the bodies, some in the chest, others in the abdomen, legs, head.

Witnesses said that survivors and people from nearby villages buried the bodies in Nondin in three mass graves. In the absence of photographs or videos, Human Rights Watch was not able to confirm the location of these graves on satellite imagery.

Killings in Soro

Human Rights Watch verified and geolocated six photographs and six videos filmed in Soro and shared with researchers by survivors showing scores of bodies of men, women, and children scattered between houses or gathered in large piles in open areas. One of these videos shows three piles of bodies. The person taking the video films the bodies of 11 children, then walks a few meters to film at least 18 male bodies, and then continues to film nearby another pile of at least 20 bodies, many of them female. The videos also show several dead animals, with at least 7 dead livestock in a walled-off enclosure. None of the videos and photographs Human Rights Watch verified show weapons and all the bodies are in civilian clothing.

Witnesses said that soldiers in Soro gunned people down after rounding them up, or as they attempted to flee or were caught hiding in homes, granaries, and behind walls.

A 32-year-old woman said that the military parked their vehicles by the main road and entered the village with motorbikes or on foot, then rounded people up, and ordered them to show identity cards:

They separated us by men and women, in groups. They only asked us one question: “Why didn’t you alert us of the arrival of the jihadists?” And then they added, answering themselves: “You are terrorists!” Then they started shooting us with live ammunition. I was shot in the right leg and fell unconscious. I didn't know what happened next until people … came to help me, after the soldiers left. Some dead people fell on me.

A 36-year-old farmer who was injured in his right hand said:

We gave them our identity cards, but they started shooting at us. They fired live bullets. When I realized that, I let myself fall and it was at that moment that I received a bullet in my right hand. Then I saw blood flowing from my neighbor's body so I took a little of it to put it on my head so that the soldiers would think I was dead. I laid still, thinking that they would still come by to check if there were any survivors and that it was over for me, but they didn't come back because they were in too much of a hurry. I stayed where I was … until they left.

Witnesses said soldiers rounded up people in three groups of men, women, and children, and shot them point blank, finishing off those who were still alive.

A 25-year-old man who lost 16 family members, including his wife, mother, and father, said:

They [soldiers] were agitated and talked through walkie-talkie in Moré language, with a distinctive accent from our area.… They received instructions from the walkie-talkie.… I understood: “Get everyone out!” … As soon as we got by the main road, they sprayed us with gunfire. They shot at everyone. People started falling over each other.… I was injured in my left shoulder. The bullet passed through my armpit and broke my arm.… I think the soldiers wanted to ensure there were no survivors because before leaving they shot several rounds at people who were already on the ground.

A 22-year-old woman who was injured in her right leg, abdomen, and shoulders, along with her 7-month-old daughter, who was injured in her left foot and arm, said:

I was home with my daughter. Suddenly the village began to swarm, there was noise everywhere. I didn't leave the house until the soldiers broke in. Two soldiers arrived in front of my door on two motorcycles, they were dressed in Burkinabè military uniform and wore helmets. They asked me to go out, shouting at me in Moré language, saying: “Are you deaf or what? Haven't you heard that everyone is outside?” I took my daughter, I went out. The soldiers took me to the place where they had gathered the entire population of Soro. They made me sit among [a group of] women. A few minutes later, they opened fire on us. I was seriously injured; I don't remember anything until my arrival at the hospital.

Residents described digging mass graves to bury the bodies on February 25. A 23-year-old man said:

There were about 10 of us. On February 25, we dug two mass graves, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. The next day, we dug 6 more mass graves. In the first one, we put 39 bodies of men; in the second one, we put 51 bodies of women and children; in the third one, we put 12 bodies of men; in the fourth, we put children ages 6, 7, and 8 there.… I don't remember how many of them, but they were between 9 and 10 children; in the fifth one, we put 14 bodies of men; in the sixth one, we put 15 bodies of women. For the seventh and eighth graves, I was too tired to watch. I did not help burying the bodies inside these last two graves, but I know there were about 20 for both.

Screengrab of a video showing one of the eight reported mass graves in Soro. The person who recorded the video said it contains the bodies of 10 children. Human Rights Watch also geolocated a photograph showing the bodies of nine boys on the ground at the same location. March 2024 © 2024 Private

Human Rights Watch reviewed and geolocated a video sent by a survivor and recorded on March 9 in Soro showing eight mass graves. For each one, the survivor gave the number or an approximate number of bodies it contains, a total of about 170.

Human Rights Watch geolocated these eight mass graves based on satellite imagery from March 15. Six mass graves are clearly visible on the satellite imagery while the two others are hidden by the shadow of buildings.


Survivors described symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, including fear, anxiety, inability to speak and focus, loneliness, and insomnia.

“I struggle to express how I feel and recall what happened,” said the 22-year-old survivor from Soro. “My mind is cloudy; my look is empty.”

“Those who survived, like me, have been pulled out from a bunch of dead bodies,” said the 25-year-old man from Soro. “I have lost 16 family members; they have all been exterminated. Now it’s just me. I am all alone. I am lost and shaken.”

“I do not know how I feel,” said a 50-year-old survivor from Nondin. “I have trouble sleeping. I have nightmares. I see the corpses again, the babies, the women, lying down. I hear the gunshots.”

The authorities should promptly provide adequate reparations, including compensation, livelihood support, and access to long-term medical and psychological health care for survivors of both attacks, Human Rights Watch said. International donors, including the European Union, should increase support for the provision of medical and psychosocial assistance to victims of serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations.

Justice and Accountability

Survivors of the attacks in Nondin and Soro said they want to know who ordered the killings and to see those responsible held accountable. However, the widespread nature of military abuse and related entrenched impunity left them with little hope for justice.

“We want justice,” said a 25-year-old trader from Soro. “We want perpetrators to be punished.”

“We want the truth to be established,” said a 50-year-old man from Nondin. “We want to know why this was done to us and we demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice.”

A human rights activist, who on February 26 accompanied family members of people killed in Nondin and Soro to the gendarmerie in Ouahigouya to give a statement, said: “I knew it was a necessary and crucial step to undertake in our campaign for accountability, but it was also very painful because somehow I know that there won’t be any follow-up.”

A 43-year-old man from Soro said:

We went to the gendarmerie in Ouahigouya and gave our version of the facts. We want justice to be done, but we are disappointed. We no longer know who to confide in, when even our own soldiers massacre us and there has been no justice for other massacres.

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