Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

Mali: War Crimes By Northern Rebels - Armed Groups Commit Rape, Use Child Soldiers

press release

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Separatist Tuareg rebels, Islamist armed groups, and Arab militias who seized control of northern Mali in April 2012 have committed numerous war crimes, including rape, use of child soldiers, and pillaging of hospitals, schools, aid agencies, and government buildings, Human Rights Watch said today.

An Islamist armed group has summarily executed two men, amputated the hand of at least one other, carried out public floggings, and threatened women and Christians.

Human Rights Watch also received credible information that Malian army soldiers have arbitrarily detained and, in some instances, summarily executed ethnic Tuareg members of the security services and civilians.

"Armed groups in northern Mali in recent weeks have terrorized civilians by committing abductions and looting hospitals," said Corinne Dufka, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The commanders of these groups need to stop the abuses, ensure discipline over their fighters, and appropriately punish those in their ranks responsible for these crimes."

Human Rights Watch conducted a 10-day mission to the Malian capital, Bamako, in April and documented abuses by several armed groups that operate in northern Mali. The separatist Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) seeks autonomy for the North, which it calls Azawad. The Tuareg are a traditionally nomadic Berber people. Ansar Dine is an Islamist armed group that wants to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia - Islamic law - throughout Mali. A local ethnic Arab militia, based in and around the historic city of Timbuktu, was allied with the Malian government, but on the day Timbuktu fell, it switched sides and has since fractured into at least two groups with unclear military and political objectives.

These and other armed groups undertook operations in January 2012 when the MNLA launched their bid for a separatist state. While they have not forged a formal alliance, witnesses and analysts describe them as becoming allied for the common purpose of taking territory from the Malian army and consolidating control of the northern regions of Kidal, Timbuktu, and Gao (Each region has a capital city of the same name). The groups maintain separate headquarters within each of the regional capitals and are identified by the flags their vehicles fly, their uniforms, the particular strategic points - such as bridges and airports - they control, and the neighborhoods in which they have concentrated fighters.

The vast majority of abuses documented by Human Rights Watch occurred within the last few days of March and first two weeks of April after the armed groups took control of Kidal on March 30, Gao on March 31, and Timbuktu on April 1. The rebels' swift advance occurred as they took advantage of the political and security chaos created when junior Malian military officers staged a coup on March 22 in response to what they viewed as the government's inadequate response to the MNLA rebellion. Many Tuareg fighters in both the MNLA and Ansar Dine had previously supported the Libyan government of Muammar Gaddafi and reentered Mali with weapons from Libya after he was ousted.

The recent fighting and insecurity, scarcity of food and medicine, and lack of functioning banks, schools, and services have caused tens of thousands of Malians to flee to the government-controlled South and neighboring countries. Witnesses described buses and trucks overflowing with fleeing civilians, who often faced extortion at MNLA checkpoints as they fled.

The United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that since January 2012, at least 284,000 residents had fled their homes as a result of the armed conflict in the North, of whom about 107,000 are believed to be internally displaced and some 177,000 have fled to neighboring countries, notably Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, and Mauritania.

Human Rights Watch interviewed over 100 victims and witnesses to the abuses, as well as local religious authorities, medical personnel, traditional leaders, members of local rights groups, government officials, and aid workers. Most witnesses had fled the affected areas; those who remained in areas of rebel control were interviewed by phone. Witnesses described abuses taking place in the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu, Dire, Niafounke, Ansongo, and, to a lesser extent, Kidal.

Victims, witnesses, and family members of victims told Human Rights Watch about a wave of abductions of women and girls by armed groups. Witnesses described the abductions by rebels of at least 17 women and girls as young as 12. A 14-year-old girl told Human Rights Watch that six rebels held her captive in Gao and raped her over a period of four days. A Timbuktu resident told Human Rights Watch that he saw three Arab militiamen drag a girl of about 12 from her mother into an abandoned building, where she was gang-raped. Witnesses and family members who had spoken with several of the other victims said the abducted girls and women had been sexually abused by the rebels. One person said that rebels took three young women from the same family from a compound in Gao, raped them, and brought them back the next day. The majority of these crimes took place in Gao shortly after it fell to rebel groups, but also in Timbuktu, Niafounke, and in villages around Dire.

The vast majority of these abductions and presumed rapes, witnesses said, were allegedly by armed men speaking the local Tamashek language and driving cars with the Tuareg separatist MNLA flag. Most of the abductions documented by Human Rights Watch took place in neighborhoods which witnesses said had a high concentration of MNLA fighters.

Nearly every witness interviewed by Human Rights Watch observed acts of looting and pillaging by MNLA rebels and, in the immediate aftermath of the army withdrawal in Timbuktu, by Arab militias. Witnesses said the Islamist rebel group Ansar Dine destroyed several bars and hotels they associated with alcohol consumption and prostitution, and engaged in looting, though on a much lesser scale. Many local residents and some prisoners who had been sprung from local prisons during the rebel advance reportedly participated in the looting as well, in many cases alongside MNLA rebels.

Witnesses described several days of looting, which began the day the Malian military was either forced to retreat or abandoned its positions in these areas. Rebels broke into hospitals and medical facilities, where they looted goods and threatened and ill-treated staff and patients. They also pillaged local government buildings, banks, Malian and international aid offices and warehouses, homes of local officials, schools, and churches.

Hospital staff from Gao and Timbuktu told Human Rights Watch that patients in local government hospitals were forcibly removed from their beds and left on the floor after rebels stole mattresses. Four patients in Gao, including elderly patients on oxygen, died after terrified staff fled, leaving the patients with no medical personnel to care for them. Witnesses also described watching rebels load up their vehicles, and, in a few cases, large trucks, with furniture, computers, printers, air conditioners, refrigerators, televisions, clothes, shoes, livestock, and other items. Many others said that rebels stole their motorcycles and cars, often at gunpoint.

Residents from several towns and villages in the North described the presence of children as young as 13 in the ranks of the MNLA and to a much lesser extent the Arab militia and Ansar Dine. Malian soldiers, who had spent weeks with the rebels as captives, and other witnesses said children had been a part of the MNLA since they began the northern operations in January. Residents observed some children taking an active part in looting following the fall of towns and villages to the rebels. Mali is a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflicts, which bans the recruitment and use in hostilities of children under 18 by non-state armed groups.

Ansar Dine fighters took several measures to protect civilians from the widespread looting, sexual violence, and other abuses by the MNLA, Arab militias, and common criminals. The Islamist group set up reporting hotlines and conducted foot and vehicular patrols. But witnesses said that Ansar Dine also summarily executed two men in Gao and amputated the hands of an MNLA rebel in Kidal as part of its crackdown. Gao residents said that in early April, Ansar Dine had cut the ear of a woman for wearing a short skirt and flogged men who had consumed alcohol and engaged in petty theft.

The looting of several churches, a bible school, and a Christian radio station as well as the destruction of church icons by MNLA and Ansar Dine fighters provoked the exodus of Christian residents from these areas, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

Witnesses also reported that on April 2, Malian government soldiers in Sevare detained and executed at least four Tuareg members of the Malian security services, including two gendarmes, a gendarme cadet, and fourth person believed to be an army soldier. Other witnesses told Human Rights Watch that since early April, soldiers manning checkpoints have taken numerous light-skinned men, including Tuaregs, Arabs, and Mauritanians, off of buses traveling between the government-controlled South and the rebel-held North. There are concerns that some of the men have been executed.

The fighting in northern Mali amounts to an armed conflict under international law. All parties to the conflict, including rebel groups, are obligated to abide by international humanitarian law, which prohibits any mistreatment of persons in custody, rape, pillage, the use of child soldiers, and other abuses. Individuals who willfully commit serious violations of international humanitarian law are responsible for war crimes. Commanders are liable as a matter of command responsibility for crimes committed by their subordinates if they knew or should have known of the crimes but failed to stop them or punish the perpetrators.

Human Rights Watch calls on the military and political leaders of each armed group in northern Mali to:

  • Adopt all necessary measures to abide by international humanitarian law.
  • Immediately issue orders prohibiting mistreatment of persons in custody, rape, pillage, and other violations of international humanitarian law.
  • Immediately issue orders prohibiting attacks on civilians and civilian structures, including medical facilities, schools, and places of worship.
  • Cease the recruitment and use of children under 18 in hostilities, release all children from their forces, and work with child protection agencies to return these children to their homes.
  • Secure and protect the basic human rights of civilians in areas under their control, including those who fled their homes and have returned.
  • Investigate and appropriately discipline commanders and fighters who are found to have carried out violations of international humanitarian law, including abductions, rape, child soldier recruitment, pillage, and other abuses. Suspend those against whom there are credible allegations of abuse, pending investigations.
  • Cease cruel and inhuman punishments prohibited under international law, such as the executions, floggings, and amputations carried out by Ansar Dine.
  • Facilitate impartial and unhindered access to organizations providing humanitarian assistance.
  • Implement all feasible measures to warn persons in areas under their control of the threat of unexploded ordnance and seek to exclude civilians from dangerous areas, including by marking and monitoring affected areas, educating people about never handling unexploded ordnance, and sharing information with all warring parties on the types, quantities, and locations of weapons used to facilitate clearance.

Human Rights Watch also calls on the government of Mali to invite the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor and investigate human rights abuses in the North.

For further documentation of abuses in Mali, please see below.

Abduction of Girls and Women and Sexual Violence

Victims and witnesses described to Human Rights Watch the abduction of 17 women and girls by rebel groups, mostly in Gao. Some of the women and girls who later escaped said that rebels had raped them. In all but one case, the witnesses believed that the abductors were MNLA rebels, identified by the flags on their cars and the MNLA's strong presence in the neighborhoods where the abductions took place. One witness told Human Rights Watch he had witnessed three members of an Arab militia gang rape a girl of about 12.

A 14-year-old told Human Rights Watch she was abducted from her home in Gao and raped by six MNLA rebels over four days. Several people described seeing women and girls as young as 12 forcibly taken at gunpoint by armed men. Often women and girls had been taken to abandoned homes, hotels, and other buildings and sexually assaulted, then returned within 24 hours.

A civil society activist in Gao told Human Rights Watch he had documented eight cases of rape by MNLA members, most involving girls around 15. He said most of the girls and their families had fled to Niger.

Several cases documented by Human Rights Watch involved victims from the Bella group, members of a traditional slave caste within Tuareg culture. The word bella means "captive" in Tamashek.

An elderly community leader said she had tried to comfort the mother of three Bella girls abducted from their house in Gao by rebels and raped for several hours, an account Human Rights Watch corroborated.

A trader in Gao told Human Rights Watch he had witnessed three abductions and one failed abduction by the MNLA of girls and young women he said were "all definitely younger than 20 - a few may have been as young as 16." He said the abductionstook place in the late afternoon or evening on or near the main road going through the Chateau, 7th and 8th quartiers (neighborhoods) of Gao. He said:

In each case the rebels jumped down from their vehicles, grabbed the girl as she was walking, and lifted her into the car, covering her mouth so she couldn't scream. A fourth time, the girl managed to fight them and was able to scream, raising alarm. Since there were people around, they let her go. On the Monday after the Gao fell, [April 2], my uncle told me how the rebels forced their way into his house in Gao, tried to take one of his wives. He took off his boubou (robe) and said, "You can kill me first but you're not taking my wives." They eventually left.

Two young women who fled Gao on April 16 witnessed the abduction of a 14-year-old neighbor by the MNLA on April 3. One told Human Rights Watch:

In the late afternoon, there was a commotion behind our house. A beige Land Cruiser with the MNLA flag was outside the tent where a Bella family lives, telling the mother they needed her daughter to cook for them. The mother refused, saying she was a widow; that her two children were all she had. The rebels insisted. They forced their way into the house, pushing past the mother. They grabbed the girl, who was hiding inside. The mother begged them to leave her daughter while the girl cried and screamed for her mother. The men forced her into the car; the girl was fighting to get out. The mother tried to grab her from the truck, but they pushed her away. Sometime later, men from [the armed group] Ansar Dine - they have a different flag - came to investigate. We went to say we were sorry, to try to assure her [the mother]. Her eyes had become red from crying.

Human Rights Watch interviewed the 14-year-old girl a few days after she said Ansar Dine had helped her escape. She said her abductors took her to a house within the Gao city limits, where six rebels repeatedly raped her over four days. She said they beat her several times as she tried to resist the sexual assaults. The house was in an area of Gao that many witnesses described as having a heavy concentration of MNLA rebels. She said that, whenever the rebels left, they locked her in the house. On the fifth day, neighbors who had become aware of her presence notified Ansar Dine, who helped her escape and provided some medical care.

A Timbuktu resident described the gang rape on April 2 by three members of a local Arab militia of a girl whom he estimated to be 12 or 13 years old:

The looting of Timbuktu started on April 1, a Sunday, and on Monday morning I was on the street with my neighbors watching and saw as the cars of the rebels sped by loaded up with things they'd looted, including from the military camp down the road. I saw a 4 by 4 [vehicle] pass by with a few armed youth from the local Arab militia. A few minutes later they returned on foot and immediately, violently grabbed the 12-year-old girl, who screamed out, as did her mother. The boys [young men] were about 21 or 22 years old. Many people screamed out in protest, saying they wouldn't allow it, but they pointed their guns at us... People were frightened and in disbelief that this could be happening in the open. The mother fought to hold on to her daughter, but she couldn't. They dragged the screaming girl into a nearby house under construction. ...Two were outside as if standing guard while the other one raped her inside. Then they switched places until all of them had gone inside. I can't tell you how horrific, how awful this was. We could hear her crying. The mother collapsed, sobbing on the ground. After they finished with her, the mother rushed in to get her daughter.

The head of a Bella family in small town near Timbuktu described the abduction of a 20-year-old family member on April 13 at around 2 p.m. Following her release, the woman had been taken to Bamako to seek medical care for sexual abuse she had endured.

We saw a truck with armed men and the flag of the Azawad (MNLA) stop in front of our house and at least five armed men jump down. They forced their way into our house brandishing automatic weapons and knives, and told me they were taking my relative with them. As the head of this family, I refused. They insisted, and I took 5,000 CFA [US$10] and offered it to them, but one of them said, 'It's not money we want!" They took her by force and brought her back the next day in the afternoon.

Recruitment and Use of Children as Soldiers

Almost all of the witnesses with whom Human Rights Watch spoke described the presence of child combatants within the ranks of the MNLA, and, to a much lesser extent, in the Arab militia and Ansar Dine. Many were described as carrying military assault rifles and wearing fatigues that some people said were "falling off their bodies." Most child combatants were estimated to be between 15 and 17 years old. However, some witnesses also described children as young as 12 within rebel ranks.

Several teachers and students from Gao, Timbuktu, Dire, and Menaka said they recognized MNLA child combatants. The children were observed riding around in rebel cars and trucks, standing side-by-side with adult MNLA rebels at checkpoints, and at times engaging in looting and extortion.

Residents of Gao, Dire, and Niafounke described a new wave of recruitment by Ansar Dine that began in mid-April. A local civil society leader said he had met with the anxious parents of a few adolescents who had been recruited by Ansar Dine in Gao, while one witness described a few adolescents among new recruits being trained in a camp some seven kilometers from Gao. A resident who attended an informational meeting by Ansar Dine in Dire said several armed adolescents were among the Ansar Dine representatives at the session.

Looting, Pillage, and Attacks on Hospitals

The systematic looting of food stocks in local stores, markets, and aid-agency warehouses, as well as the theft of medical supplies from hospitals and clinics, and the closure of schools, doubtlessly contributed to the decision by tens of thousands of civilians to flee the rebel-held North for the government-controlled South, Human Rights Watch said.

Civilians who had fled Gao, Timbuktu, Ansongo, and Dire described systematic looting and pillage by members of the MNLA and, in Timbuktu and to a lesser extent Gao, by Arab militias. The vehicles into which the looted goods were loaded very often flew the MNLA flag. Civilians also took part in the looting.

Human Rights Watch documented many fewer cases of looting and pillage by Ansar Dine. To the contrary, numerous witnesses described the efforts of Ansar Dine to prevent looting, including by establishing a hotline for victims of looting and other abuses to call for help. There were, however, a few accounts of Ansar Dine distributing food that had been looted from aid agency warehouses.

Since the capture of the major towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, armed groups appeared to target government buildings and institutions, as well as the residences of high-level civil servants and members of the Malian security services. More recently, they have robbed ordinary residents during home intrusions, stolen cars and motorcycles, and attacked boutiques and small shops.

Medical personnel in Gao and Timbuktu said rebels had pillaged hospitals and clinics of medicine and medical equipment, as well as furniture and supplies. Witnesses believed Arab militiamen were responsible for the looting of Timbuktu hospital. One nurse from Gao described the pillaging, which he linked to the deaths of four patients:

They came at 11 p.m. on March 31. They walked around the hospital, pointing their arms at the family members of the wounded, asking if they were military or not. They stole everything - medicine from the pharmacy; the office computers, scanners, printers, and air conditioners; the director's Hilux [car], the ambulance, a doctor's personal Mercedes, and about 40 motorcycles that belonged to hospital staff. At one point they came with a large truck, which they stuffed with looted goods from the hospital. I saw them rip the oxygen tubes from one patient and put him on the ground so they could take his mattress. Most of the staff fled, terrified of what they'd do, leaving the patients there. We lost four patients because of their looting; two elderly men and one elderly woman, who died later after their family members fled with them to the house, and a soldier who'd been wounded in fighting on Saturday morning. We'd done first aid, and he was to have been transferred to surgery, but after the MNLA came, it wasn't possible to give him the surgical intervention he needed. The rebels should be held responsible for their deaths.

An elderly resident of Gao, who had fled to Bamako, described the looting in Gao:

Over the period of several days, the town of Gao was thoroughly, systematically, and comprehensively pillaged - the government offices, banks, schools, hospitals, and churches, the warehouses and offices of international humanitarian organizations, the houses of government officials. It can only be described as a tragic looting fest. Everything that the state and residents of Gao had worked to construct for the benefit of the population was stripped away in a matter of days. Of course the local population, prisoners who'd been sprung from the prison, and even residents from neighboring towns and villages joined in, but I believe the majority of looting was done by the MNLA.

People who had fled the North to find refuge in the government-controlled South described being forced to pay a "right of passage" before being allowed to pass through MNLA-controlled checkpoints. Numerous witnesses said the MNLA had threatened to hold back any civilian unable to pay the amount demanded. On a few occasions, MNLA rebels pointed their guns at the drivers of the vehicles to force them to pay. Most individuals were forced to pay from 1,000-3,000 CFA, while drivers were often asked to pay 50,000 CFA. (500 CFA = US$1.) A student who fled Kidal in early April with about 30 other civilians described being robbed of shoes, clothes, cameras, and phones at an MNLA checkpoint between Kidal and Gao.

Cruel and Inhuman Punishments

After establishing bases within several northern towns, the leadership of Ansar Dine declared that they would be enforcing their strict interpretation of Sharia. This included requirements on how men and women should dress and with whom girls and women could be seen in public. Women and girls described to Human Rights Watch being afraid not to follow these directives.

Ansar Dine imposed harsh punishments against several men for criminal offenses and infractions of Sharia. Several witnesses said that, in early April, several armed men ambushed a bus on the outskirts of Gao, diverting it onto a side road. After Ansar Dine responded to a call made to its hotline, at least one of the gunmen fired on the arriving Ansar Dine members. The Ansar Dine members then executed two of the armed men, one by slitting his throat, the other by shooting.

A witness from Kidal said that in early April, Ansar Dine members amputated the hand of an MNLA rebel who refused to pay a local merchant for purchases:

As I was getting a haircut, I saw two MNLA rebels - in Kidal they share power with the AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] and Ansar Dine people - buying things from a small kiosk across the street. One of them paid the shopkeeper, but the other refused to pay. The rebel was obnoxious and intimidating; he pointed his gun at the shopkeeper. At that moment a patrol of Ansar Dine happened to drive by. Four of them jumped down from the Land Cruiser and asked the kiosk owner what was happening. After hearing his explanation, one of them went to the truck, grabbed a long knife and then the rebel, put his hand down on a piece of wood, and whacked off his right hand above the wrist, lecturing everyone about this being what a robber deserves. They spoke about Sharia...I was trembling; it was too much. ...We don't know this kind of violence in Mali.

Witnesses in Gao described how on April 20, members of Ansar Dine publicly flogged in front of a mosque a man they accused of consuming alcohol, and another caught stealing by a local neighborhood watch committee. The men were lashed 80 times with a branch.

While Christian residents did not report any direct threats or directives to leave cities now controlled by Islamist rebels and the MNLA, they interpreted the looting of churches and destruction of church icons, including bibles and crosses, as a serious warning. Church officials in Timbuktu and Gao said that both the MNLA and Ansar Dine had extensively looted at least three churches, a Christian radio station, and a bible school.

Harm to Civilians by Abandoned or Looted Explosive Ordnance

Since late 2011, northern Mali has seen a proliferation of heavy and light weapons. This was the result of the ousting of the late Libyan president Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 during which warehouses of ammunition and weapons were left largely unguarded and the Malian army's abandonment since January 2012 of their military camps when the rebels, primarily the MNLA and Ansar Dine, swept across and consolidated control of the North.

Residents said that the rebels' negligent handling of arms and weapons they had looted from military camps in the North had resulted in the deaths of three teenage boys and the maiming or wounding of at least five others. In some places, stolen military rifles and boxes of hand grenades fell off the trucks of rebel vehicles that raced through the streets. One Timbuktu resident said:

I live along the main road that comes out of the military camp. After the army fled and as the camp was being looted by the MNLA and Arab militia, I saw 4 by 4s, including some they'd stolen from the Malian army, streaming by loaded up with guns and ammo boxes. The stuff was piled so high it would sometimes fall out onto the street as they raced by. On a few occasions, I saw automatic weapons fall out, as well as a few boxes full of grenades. When they hit the ground, the grenades rolled out, scattering here and there like mangos. We tried to warn people not to touch them, but you know how children are.

Two teenagers were killed and another was seriously injured in Timbuktu on April 11 when what residents believed was a grenade exploded as the boys were playing with it. A third boy lost a hand and part of his leg. On April 19, a 12-year-old boy in Niofounke died when something he was playing with exploded. A hospital worker from Gao said he treated a man who had lost the fingers of one hand when a grenade exploded. A nurse from Kidal described having treated a teenager who had lost part of his hand when the boy threw a rock at unexploded ordnance; the incident wounded two other boys.

Residents said rebel authorities had made scant effort to collect the weapons or conduct public education about the dangers of unexploded ordnance.

Arbitrary Detention, Executions of Tuaregs by the Malian Armed Forces

Human Rights Watch received credible information that Malian army soldiers have arbitrarily detained and, in some instances, summarily executed Tuareg members of the security services and Tuareg civilians travelling between the rebel-control North and the government-controlled South.

A witness told Human Rights Watch that around 7 p.m. on April 2, three men including two gendarmes and a gendarme cadet, were detained by a truckload of Malian army soldiers from a house in Sévaré, 570 kilometers from Gao. The witness, a relative of one of the men, said she was informed by a member of the security services that the men had been executed inside the military camp the same night. The bodies of four men, including her relative, were located at the local hospital morgue the next day. She and her family fled to Burkina Faso a few days later.

Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the first checkpoint controlled by the Malian army on the Gao-Bamako road is in the village of Kona, outside the town of Sévaré. A bus passenger who arrived at the checkpoint on April 22 described what happened:

When we arrived at the checkpoint, it was more difficult for those from the North, the Tuaregs. The military distinguished them by the color of their skin. They were pulled down from the bus, while the rest of us remained on board. Then the military told the bus to go ahead with everyone else. We saw them being searched as we left. It was a tense situation, a truly tense situation. The soldiers were being rough with them.

These searches, the separation of the Tuaregs leaving Gao, this started around April 3. We know that several of those who have been removed from buses have been disappeared - kidnapped and summarily executed.

Human Rights Watch calls on the Malian government to investigate allegations of arbitrary detention and summary execution at the Kona checkpoint and to appropriately discipline or prosecute anyone implicated in abuses.

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