Nairobi — Suspected Islamist armed groups in Burkina Faso killed at least 90 civilians in 3 attacks on villages in late January 2020 that forced thousands to flee, Human Rights Watch said today. The attacks, between January 17 and 25, accelerated government plans to create a new militia force, raising concerns of future abuses.
The killings in Rofénèga, Nagraogo, and Silgadji villages occurred amid a surge in armed group attacks in the center and north of the country and the growth of Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and to the Islamic State in the Greater Sahel (ISGS). The violence had displaced over 775,000 people by the end of March. Human Rights Watch is also investigating the February 16 attack on Pansi village, allegedly by armed Islamists, which left over 20 civilians dead.
"The massacre of scores of civilians by Islamist armed groups shows their utter disregard for human life," said Jonathan Pedneault, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Armed group leaders should immediately stop and denounce such attacks against civilians."
Human Rights Watch previously documented Islamist armed group attacks that killed more than 250 civilians between April and December 2019, as well as dozens of cases in which government security forces summarily executed men in their custody for their alleged support of the groups, most recently during an incident on April 9 in Djibo.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 13 witnesses to the Nagraogo and Rofénèga killings in Burkina Faso's capital, Ouagadougou, and in Kaya, in late January. Two witnesses to the Silgadji killings were interviewed by telephone.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but all 15 witnesses said they thought the attackers were members of Islamist armed groups because their method of attack and choice of targets were similar to previous attacks by these groups.
They said that the gunmen, dressed in black or military garments and wearing turbans, rode two-by-two on motorcycles into village marketplaces. They seemed to target adult men on the basis of their ethnicity because virtually none of the victims were Fulani, the ethnicity of many armed Islamists. In Nagraogo, witnesses saw attackers flying a black flag, a symbol of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS).
In two of the villages, witnesses said, the population had earlier fled because of growing insecurity, but government authorities had urged them to return home after the army provided security assurances.
A 15-year-old girl from Rofénèga told Human Rights Watch she witnessed the killing of her 20-year-old brother on January 17. "He had mental health issues," she said. "When he heard the gunshots, he tried to flee to the bush, but they intercepted him and killed him."
People with disabilities were among those unable to escape the attackers. A 40-year-old woman with a physical disability said that on January 20 in Nagraogo village, she hid in her home while her family escaped to safety. "I heard gunshots and was sad and scared," she said. "I felt death, because I couldn't run."
A day after the January 20 attacks on the neighboring villages of Nagraogo and Alamou, which killed at least 36 people, the Burkina Faso parliament passed a law creating local militias, Groups of Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland. The law would create groups of "Volunteers" by recruiting, training, and equipping civilians to defend their communities. They are to operate under the authority of the Burkina Faso Defense and Security Forces (Forces de Défense et de Sécurité, FDS).
But the new law could leave communities more vulnerable to attacks by Islamist armed groups, Human Rights Watch said. In previous months, armed Islamists have on several occasions targeted civilians for their alleged support of the military or local Volunteer forces.
In the village of Gasseliki, armed Islamists killed 20 civilians in January 2019 in apparent retaliation for seeking to establish a self-defense force. More recently, a witness to the January 25 Silgadji killings said that during the attack, armed Islamists accused the community of seeking support from the military to establish a group of Volunteers.
The government's plans to empower militias by institutionalizing the Volunteers also raises concerns that such groups will commit serious abuses. Existing Burkina Faso self-defense groups, such as the Koglweogo, have committed numerous abuses. On March 8, members of the Koglweogo allegedly killed at least 43 Fulani in 3 villages of the Sahel region.
Abuses by all armed groups in Burkina Faso's ongoing conflict have largely gone unpunished, highlighting the failure and limitations of the Burkina Faso justice system to ensure accountability for victims of abuses and likely prompting reprisal killings.
Burkina Faso and its international donors - particularly France and the European Union - should support efforts to address growing tensions between ethnic communities, improve efforts to hold accountable those responsible for serious crimes, and impartially protect civilians at risk. Burkina Faso's international partners should urge the government to take all necessary steps to ensure that the Volunteer self-defense force it plans to mobilize is properly trained, regulated, and held to account if members commit abuses.
All those responsible for deliberate killings of civilians and other serious violations of the laws of war may be prosecuted for war crimes. Burkinabe commanders may be held accountable for war crimes for grave abuses committed by forces under their command, including Volunteers. International partners of Burkina Faso providing support to the military, including those supporting the G5-Sahel Force, should ensure that weapons and other materials provided to the Burkinabe military are not transferred to abusive militia forces.
"Arming civilians without adequate training or government control is a recipe for increased abuses and intercommunal conflict," Pedneault said. "Instead of countering communal tension, the Burkina Faso government risks exacerbating the problem by creating militias that could well turn their guns against other civilians."
Massacres by Islamist Armed Groups
Since the 2016 emergence of Ansaroul Islam, a homegrown group from the Burkina Faso's Sahel region, armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda and to ISGS have spread into northern Burkina Faso from neighboring Mali and have steadily expanded into the country's western, central, and eastern regions.
Recruiting local members, particularly from within the Fulani or Peuhl ethnic group, they have relied on relatively weak resistance from state security forces and growing fault lines between the Fulani and other communities, such as the largely agrarian Mossi, Foulsé, Songhai, and Gourmantché, who have been the victims of most attacks by Islamist armed groups.
Attack on Rofénèga, Centre-Nord region, January 17
A group of armed men attacked the village of Rofénèga, in the commune of Pissila, on the evening of January 17, 2020. The village of roughly 2,000 people was mostly Mossi but also had about 100 Fulani families.
Islamist armed groups had previously attacked the area, killing at least 22 people during an attack on the neighboring village of Dibilou on July 25, 2019. This caused the temporary displacement of most Rofénèga inhabitants to Kaya, 30 kilometers away. Witnesses to the January attack said they had returned to Rofénèga because security forces told them it was safe.
Two weeks before the Rofénèga attack, a couple from Sidigo, another nearby village, said they saw Burkinabe security forces arrest two Fulani men in the market. "[The security forces] executed them just outside of the village," one of them said.
A 12-year-old Mossi boy who was at the market during the attack on Rofénèga said:
Someone in the village had just gotten a new TV and invited the children to come and watch. Then we heard "Run! Run!" All the children locked themselves into a house, but I was scared and wanted to leave. As I did, I saw armed men come toward me, so I hid under a pile of straw. One guy saw me and pointed his weapon directly at me, but another told him in Mooré [the Mossi's language, spoken by many Fulani]: "Don't shoot, it's a small child." Then they continued to shoot at the grown-ups. Sometimes when they shot, they shouted "Allahu Akbar!" I was shaking because of the fear.
After the attack, the assailants "put on music and rode their motorcycles and started to do stunts with them while shooting in the air," the boy said.
A 26-year-old woman who was at home described the attack. "We were sitting under the tree, discussing, when someone ran to us and told us to run fast, fast," she said. "When we tried to leave, we saw that the compound was surrounded by men in black clothes and turbans. That's when my husband's older brother was killed." The brother's son told Human Rights Watch: "My father was running to warn us, and he was shot meters away from the door."
Seven witnesses to the attack said that the attackers killed 16 villagers that day, all of them Mossi men. The witnesses provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 12 victims.
Attack on Nagraogo and Alamou, Centre-Nord region, January 20
On January 20, a group of motorcycle-riding armed men dressed in black and flying black flags first attacked Alamou and then Nagraogo, 2 Mossi-majority villages fewer than 7 kilometers apart on the road linking the towns of Barsalogo and Dablo. Witnesses said that less than half an hour before the armed men arrived in the village markets, a convoy of Burkina Faso military forces had patrolled the road in the direction of Dablo.
Mossi witnesses from Nagraogo said that many Fulani lived in their village. "Ten years ago, everyone lived in perfect harmony, but over the last few years there were problems between the owners of the land and the Fulani over the cattle trails," said a 40-year-old woman. "They threatened to chase the Fulani out of town if they didn't comply."
This woman said that Nagraogo's residents began to fear Islamist armed groups, locally known as the Weogo Ramba, or "masters of the bush," following a series of March 2019 attacks on the villages of Nawoubkiba and Koglobaraogo in the neighboring commune of Namissiguima.
Several witnesses said that despite the nearby attacks, the villagers remained, believing that security forces could protect them. An attack on the village of Dofi, a few kilometers north of Nagraogo, in mid-2019 had caused the displacement of many villagers to Kaya, but local officials allegedly said that security force patrols would ensure people's safety. "We thought that nothing would happen," a survivor of the Nagraogo attack said.
Despite the security presence, armed groups rode into Nagraogo's marketplace around 4 p.m. "It happened less than 20 minutes after the FDS passed through on their way to Dablo," a 38-year-old farmer said. "I was in the center of the market and we saw motorcycles coming our way. We thought it was the rest of the FDS convoy. Then I saw them shoot at a civilian."
"At the time of the attack, I was outside of the house collecting goods for my baby, and on my way back I heard noises," a 26-year-old woman said. "It was weapons. I ran and saw them chase after my husband's younger brother, whom they killed."
The farmer said that the armed men had walkie-talkies and communicated with one another in Fulfulde, a Fulani language.
"Once they were done with what they wanted to do, they started to do stunts with all of their motorcycles and then they left toward Dablo," the farmer said. Another man who saw them leave said they shouted "Allahu Akbar" on their way out of Nagraogo.
"I lost all of my belongings - my shop was burned, my motorcycle was burned, my phones were left behind," said a 40-year-old mechanic. "The whole market was burned," the farmer said. "I saw many bodies."
According to villagers and government statements, the attackers killed at least 32 men in Nagraogo and 4 in Alamou. Most of those reported killed were Mossi, though as many as 3 Fulani were also said to have been killed. Witnesses provided Human Rights Watch with the names of 22 victims.
Attack on Silgadji, Sahel region, January 25
On January 25, armed men speaking Fulfulde attacked the predominantly Mossi village of Silgadji, in Soum province, killing at least 39 men in apparent retaliation for the community's refusal to live in accordance with the rules of an Islamist armed group, and the village's plans to form a self-defense group. A few days before the attack, two villagers interviewed remotely said the military had briefly visited the village and promised that they would return to train "Volunteers."
Islamist armed groups had previously attacked Silgadji. On April 28, 2019, armed men summarily executed six congregants of the Assemblies of God Protestant Church, including the pastor, prompting the departure of most of the village's Christians.
A 37-year-old man from outside of Silgadji who was at the market on January 25 said that 2 young men he suspects were Islamist fighters came to the village around 2:30 p.m. to buy water and biscuits. "Then they left and 30 minutes later, we heard the sound of motorbikes approaching the market," he said. "We thought it was the FDS, but they surrounded us and made us leave our shops."
The attackers, whom both witnesses said wore turbans and a mix of civilian clothes and military fatigues, then asked villagers why the women still wore no veils and men continued to cut their beards. They then ordered the women and those who were not from the village to leave the market.
"They said they only needed those from Silgadji center since they had asked the army to come and help them fight," the 37-year-old man said. "They freed me because I'm not from the village. As I left, not even 20 meters away, they started to shoot at the people."
The other witness, a 41-year-old man from Silgadji, said he observed four members of the Islamist armed group execute dozens of men who were lying face down behind the market: "They shot them in the head but those who tried to escape were shot in the chest."
The two witnesses said they helped to bury the victims the following day.
Government Support for Militia Forces
On January 21, a day after the Nagraogo and Alamou massacres, Burkina Faso's National Assembly unanimously passed the Law Instituting the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland. President Roch Kaboré had first announced the initiative after the November 6, 2019 attack on a mining convoy in the Est region that killed 39 people.
The law mandates Volunteers "to contribute, occasionally through the use of arms, to the protection of people and goods of their village or zone of residence," and to be subjected to the authority of the military and work in collaboration with them. While the law states that Volunteers are to exercise their function "neutrally," the law directs them to defend the "security interests" of their own village, which in the current context may clash with those of neighboring villages or communities.
The Burkinabe government has previously tolerated armed civilian groups, including the Koglweogo, a largely anti-crime force that has been implicated in grave abuses. On January 1, 2019, the Koglweogo self-defense militia killed scores of Fulani civilians in the village of Yirgou, in the Centre-Nord region, after accusing them of harboring armed Islamists who had killed a Mossi chief and five civilians a day earlier. A year later the killings remain largely unpunished, despite an ongoing investigation.
Amnesty International has reported that the Koglweogo continued to attack Fulani civilians after the Burkina Faso parliament approved the Volunteers law. On March 8, Koglweogo self-defense forces reportedly attacked 3 villages in Yatenga province, in the Sahel region, killing at least 43 Fulani villagers and burning homes.