Government soldiers patrol near Gorgadji in Burkina Faso, March 2019.  2019 REUTERS/Luc Gnago

(Nairobi) – Burkina Faso’s security forces allegedly executed 31 detainees on April 9, 2020 in the northern town of Djibo, Human Rights Watch said today. The men were apparently killed just hours after being arrested, unarmed, during a government counterterrorism operation. The government should immediately and impartially investigate the killings and hold to account all those responsible, regardless of rank.

The apparent massacre in Djibo, about 200 kilometers north of Ouagadougou, the capital, occurred amid a worsening security and humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region. The growth of Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS) has fueled violence that had displaced over 775,000 people by late March.

"The Burkinabè security forces apparently executed 31 men in a brutal mockery of a counterterrorism operation that may amount to a war crime and could fuel further atrocities,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop the abuse, fully investigate this terrible incident, and commit to a rights-respecting counterterrorism strategy.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 17 people with knowledge of the April 9 killings, including 12 witnesses to the arrests and later burial of the victims. Witnesses provided a list of victims, all men from the Peuhl ethnic group, as well as maps indicating where the men were executed and later buried.

Beginning in 2016, armed Islamist groups, which have largely recruited from the nomadic Peuhl or Fulani community, have attacked security force posts and civilians throughout Burkina Faso, but mostly in the Sahel region bordering Mali and Niger. Human Rights Watch has since 2017 documented the killing of over 300 civilians by armed Islamist groups and the killing of several hundred men by government security forces for their alleged support of these groups.

The residents speculated that they had been targeted because of the recent presence of some armed Islamists around Djibo. “The jihadists have been roaming around lately,” one said. “It’s like we’re punished for their mere presence.” 

Local residents said scores of security force personnel were involved in the April 9 operation, which lasted from around 10 a.m., when the arrests began, until around 1:30 p.m., when they heard several bursts of gunfire. The victims were arrested from several neighborhoods, or “sectors,” while they were watering their animals, walking, or sitting in front of their homes. They were taken away in a convoy of about 10 military vehicles including pickup trucks, an armored car, and motorcycles.

Residents said that around 4 p.m., they ventured to where they had heard the gunfire and found the bodies of 31 men who were last seen in the security forces’ custody. Several had bound eyes or hands. Residents said none of the men were armed.

The Security Forces Involved in the Operation

Witnesses said that most of the security force personnel wore military uniforms with protective vests. Several were dressed in black or wore mixed military and civilian clothes. Many wore helmets while some covered their faces with turbans, and most had military assault rifles. Large machine guns were mounted on at least two vehicles. The soldiers spoke French and Mooré, one of Burkina Faso’s principle languages. Three people said they saw soldiers with walkie-talkies.

The Burkina Faso government has three key security force camps in Djibo – a police station, a gendarme base, and a base housing the Groupement des Forces Anti-Terroristes (GFAT), a mixed counterterrorism force. Residents said they believed those implicated in the April 9 killings were based in the GFAT camp, in part because of the size of the operation, and because it is the only camp in which they’ve seen armored cars. Several told Human Rights Watch they had received calls from family members living close to the GFAT base before the arrests to report that a large convoy was leaving the base, and again around 2 p.m. to 3 p.m., when the convoy returned.

The Arrests

The first arrests, of at least 6 men, occurred around 10 a.m. in sectors 8 and 9. A woman from sector 8 said she saw the convoy stop at a clinic and observed soldiers asking people for their ID cards.She said the security forces were already holding two men she knew, their eyes bound with their turbans. “After some minutes, the convoy left, but on the way, they arrested another Peuhl man who had taken out his ID card,” she said. “The soldiers ordered him into the pickup with the others and drove off. They were all found dead.”

Three animal herders, including 1 with a mental health condition, were arrested at a watering hole in sector 8. “The army suddenly showed up in 3 vehicles and 7 motorcycles,” said a herder who managed to hide. “There were 3 adult men there with their animals. They tried to show their IDs but one of the soldiers said, ‘We don't want your IDs, it’s you we want.’ They tied their hands with their turbans, ordered them onto a pickup, and drove off.”

Between 11 a.m. and noon, the convoy moved to sector 7, a few kilometers away, arresting at least 25 more men, including several who had been displaced by violence elsewhere. "About 10 pickups and many motorcycles rode through the streets rounding up any Peuhl who couldn’t hide … from their homes, at the well, on the road, in front of their stores,” a trader said.

Another sector 7 resident said:

Two brothers on bicycles were on their way back from a baptism but they coincided with the convoy arrival.… I saw the soldiers order them off their bikes and to board a pickup with the other arrested men.… Later, I received a call saying the shepherd who tends our cattle was also taken.

While hiding, a woman in sector 7 saw soldiers arrest a sick man resting near his house:

Soldiers dragged him 30 meters and onto their pick-up … the man cried out in pain, saying he’d just had an operation. The soldiers accused him of lying but released him after seeing the bandages on his abdomen. They rode off with about 6 other detainees.

The Executions, Search for, and Burial of Bodies

Witnesses said they heard several bursts of gunfire between 1 p.m. and 1:30 p.m. “I’d just finished afternoon prayer when I heard gunfire from the direction the convoy had taken,” said a man who lost two close relatives. “We knew then, our loved ones were no more.” Another resident said “After the arrests, we waited with heavy hearts. When the shots rang out, we knew our loved ones weren’t coming home.”

Eight people described helping retrieve and bury the dead, who were found about 4 kilometers from central Djibo, 50 meters from the cemetery in sector 7 [also known as Firguindi]. Witnesses counted between 29 and 31 bodies, all Peuhl men between the ages of 20 and about 60. They included fathers and sons, and at least 2 brothers. Human Rights Watch received a list of 31 people allegedly killed during the incident. The names match those retrieved from witnesses.

The witnesses said the bodies were divided into 4 groups, most separated by a distance of about 50 to 100 meters. An elder said:

At around 4 p.m., after the gunfire and after seeing the army convoy return to Djibo – we went in search of our people. It was a terrifying scene.… Many of the bodies were in pieces like they’d peppered them with a powerful gun. I was only able to recognize my brother from a piece of his clothing.

Another man said he found five of his family members: “As night fell, we took flashlights and went with a camel-drawn cart. The bodies were divided into four groups. I had to look at all of them to identity my people. They’d been shot with bursts of gunfire, tearing several bodies beyond recognition.”

Witnesses said 6 men were buried in the sector 8 cemetery, 5 in the sector 7 cemetery, and the rest in several common graves adjacent to where the executions had taken place. 

Need for Investigation and Accountability 

None of the witnesses saw any of the arrested men with a firearm. “This was not a battle,” a trader said. “There was no gunfire before the arrests. If there had been tension, or an attack … we’d not have gone to the well, clinic, or to our fields,” said an elder. “How can unarmed people be thrown into a vehicle and murdered by our own army without even being interrogated or tried?” said another man, who had lost his brother.

Several people said that the Peuhl population was being targeted by both sides. “Both jihadists [armed Islamists] and the army threaten and kill us,” an elder said. “Both have prevented us from going to the market to buy and sell.”

A religious leader said “Many of us adhere to the Tijāniyyah sect of Islam, based on tolerance. The jihadists see us as traitors and threaten us for not joining them.”

“The Burkina Faso authorities should urgently and impartially investigate this alleged war crime and suspend any implicated security force commander pending the investigation’s outcome,” Dufka said

The European Union, France, and the United States should press the government to conduct a credible investigation and hold those responsible to account, Human Rights Watch said. They should ensure that any military assistance provided to the Burkinabè security forces is not being used by units responsible for this or other atrocities for which no one has been held to account.