A man reads the L'Observateur Paalga newspaper in Ouagadougou on June 7, 2021, about the attacks that happened in Solhan.  © 2021 OLYMPIA DE MAISMONT/AFP via Getty Images

Just after 2 a.m. on June 5, armed Islamist fighters stormed an artisanal gold mining site outside Solhan village in Burkina Faso’s northeastern Yagha province. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the attackers opened fire on everyone that moved, killing over 140 people. Some villagers were shot as they ran for cover, others while they cowered in houses and shops, others as they begged for their lives. Among the victims were at least eight children.

“The scene was apocalyptic – wounded men, bleeding and in a daze, wandered past the dead who were lying everywhere,” said one man. “I found the body of my little brother riddled with bullets.”  

The attack brings to over 500 the grim toll of civilians killed by armed Islamist groups in the Sahel since early 2021, according to Human Rights Watch’s research. The epicenter of the worsening violence is the porous tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger. Villagers have been killed as they tended their cattle, took part in religious ceremonies, drank tea, and slept in their homes.  

In Niger, armed Islamist groups killed over 300 villagers in three horrific attacks in the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions. Attacks in May in Burkina Faso’s Oudalan province killed over 30 villagers, including many attending a baptism. “The commander ordered the men to lie face down, then yelled at his men to carry out the executions,” a witness said.

In most cases, the armed Islamist groups appear to have targeted villages that had or were planning village defense groups. Yet attacks on villages that do not discriminate between civilians and combatants are war crimes.  

The armed Islamist groups should end their unlawful attacks. At the same time, government security forces in the Sahel, which themselves have committed numerous abuses against suspects in custody and communities believed to support the Islamist groups, should recognize that atrocities by their opponents never justify their own crimes. Together with international forces, they need to do more to protect the Sahel’s vulnerable communities.