Increasing numbers of children are being killed or targeted for recruitment by armed groups in conflicts raging at Niger's borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, Amnesty International said in a new report published today (13 September).
The 57-page report, 'I Have Nothing Left Except Myself': The Worsening Impact on Children of Conflict in the Tillabéri Region of Niger, documents the devastating impact on children of the conflict, involving armed groups Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM).
Both ISGS and JNIM have committed war crimes and other abuses, including the murder of civilians and the targeting of schools. Many children have been left traumatised after witnessing deadly attacks on their villages. In some areas, women and girls have been barred from activities outside the home, and risk abduction or forced marriage to fighters.
Matt Wells, Amnesty International's Crisis Response Deputy Director, said:
"Niger is at a precipice. In parts of the country an entire generation is growing up surrounded by death and destruction. Armed groups have repeatedly attacked schools, food reserves and are targeting children for recruitment.
"The Nigerien government and its international partners must urgently take action to monitor and prevent further abuses across Tillabéri region and protect the basic rights of all those affected by this deadly conflict - especially children."
The Nigerien authorities have failed to protect civilians. Witnesses to attacks described how, despite their urgent calls, Niger's Defence and Security Forces frequently arrived long after killing and looting had ended.
Amnesty considers the situation in Niger a non-international armed conflict, given the intensity of violence and level of organisation of both ISGS and JNIM.
Targeted killing of civilians
The conflict in Tillabéri, in the north-west of the country, has escalated significantly since the start of this year. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, violence against civilians has led to 544 conflict-related deaths between 1 January and 29 July in Niger, already far exceeding the 397 people killed last year.
Armed groups have killed more than 60 children in Niger's tri-border area this year. ISGS, which operates primarily on the border with Mali, appears responsible for most of the killings.
Amnesty spoke to 16 boys who had narrowly survived ISGS attacks on their villages. They described how masked attackers on motorbikes opened fire, particularly targeting men and older boys. One boy, aged around 13 or 14, said, "We all are used to hearing gunshots and to seeing [dead] people layered on top of [dead] people".
Fighters have fired into homes, killing or injuring civilians attempting to hide. One woman and her baby daughter suffered gunshot wounds while hiding at home during a likely ISGS attack.
The FDS withdrew from some border areas after suffering losses to ISGS and JNIM in late 2019, leading to an absence of state authorities. Witnesses to attacks said the FDS often failed to respond, as killing and looting unfolded over several hours. A 50-year-old man, in words echoed by many others, told Amnesty, "We have been abandoned".
Recruitment of children
The recruitment of children by JNIM has increased significantly this year in Torodi department, near the Burkina Faso border. Witnesses said JNIM has targeted younger men and boys aged between 15 and 17, and possibly younger. JNIM members offer incentives such as food, money and clothes to attract recruits. Recruits reportedly receive weapons training for periods ranging from one week to three months. JNIM is also known to use children as spies, scouts and lookouts, among other functions defined as participation in hostilities under international law.
Attacks on children's education
As part of violent opposition to education they consider "Western", ISGS and JNIM have burned down schools and threatened teachers. As of June this year, at least 377 schools in the Tillabéri region had closed, depriving more than 31,000 children of education. Amnesty documented attacks which targeted and burned schools in at least four departments of Tillabéri region. In rural areas, most school structures are made from straw, making them easy to burn down.
Teachers have also been threatened for their work. One 15-year-old boy from Mogodyougou said, "The teachers... left. They'd be killed [if they stayed]."
Under international humanitarian law, attacks against schools are prohibited unless the school is being used for military purposes. As such, attacks against schools or other buildings dedicated to education documented by Amnesty constitute war crimes.
Children's health imperilled
The conflict has significantly undermined children's access to healthcare, as armed groups have looted health facilities. Immunisation rates have plummeted, and diseases such as measles are on the rise. The relentless attacks have had a profound impact on children's mental health and wellbeing. Very few children interviewed had received psychosocial support. Amnesty documented symptoms of trauma and distress among children, including nightmares, disturbed sleep patterns, fear, anxiety, and loss of appetite. Many reported how the sound of motorbikes triggered memories of attacks.
Acute food insecurity
During attacks, ISGS have burned grain stores, looted shops and stolen livestock, leaving families destitute and without adequate food. Children face heightened risks of malnutrition and related illness. A woman with seven children told Amnesty that ISGS fighters torched her family's granaries during an attack on Zibane village. She said, "Everything was burned ... I have nothing left, except myself."
Through satellite imagery analysis, Amnesty corroborated the targeted burning of grain stores. Such attacks have forcibly displaced tens of thousands of people, often emptying entire villages due to lack of food. Both ISGS and JNIM also regularly impose 'taxes' on communities, often enforced through violence. Humanitarian agencies have predicted that an estimated 2.3 million people in the region are likely to suffer from food insecurity due to the attacks, as well as from drought and floods.
Nearly a decade of conflict
Conflict erupted in Mali in 2012 and has since spilled into neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. Armed groups have competed for control in the border areas, and frequently clashed with the Nigerien military, and forces from countries including Chad, Mali, Burkina Faso, and France. An estimated 13.2 million people in the three countries will need humanitarian assistance this year, and around 1.9 million people have been internally displaced.