Burkina Faso: Upsurge in Atrocities by Islamist Armed Groups

Burkina Faso: Upsurge in Atrocities by Islamist Armed Groups

Burkina Faso: Upsurge in Atrocities by Islamist Armed Groups

Burkina Faso: Upsurge in Atrocities by Islamist Armed Groups

Islamist armed groups in Burkina Faso have killed scores of civilians, looted and burned property, and forced thousands to flee in attacks across the country since late 2022, Human Rights Watch said today. The armed groups have also besieged several towns, cutting residents off from food, basic services, and humanitarian aid.

In April 2023, Burkina Faso’s transitional military government, formed in October 2022, announced a “general mobilization” as part of a plan to recapture the country’s territory lost to the Islamist armed groups.

“Islamist armed groups are wreaking havoc in Burkina Faso by attacking villages and towns and committing atrocities against civilians,” said Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The transitional authorities should work with regional bodies and concerned governments to provide better protection and greater assistance for people at risk.”

Since 2015, successive Burkina Faso governments have been battling an Islamist insurgency spreading from neighboring Mali that has killed thousands of people and forcibly displaced almost two million more. Fighting has intensified in recent years so that now the Al-Qaeda linked Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, JNIM) and, to a lesser extent, the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, control up to 40 percent of Burkina Faso’s territory, the Economic Community of West African States reported. Mounting civilian and military casualties, and the loss of government-held territory have spurred two military coups in Burkina Faso since 2022.

Between January and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 people, in person or by phone, about abuses allegedly committed by Islamist armed groups in the Centre-Ouest, Centre-Nord, and Sahel regions since November 2022. Those interviewed included 19 witnesses of abuses, 4 family members of victims, 6 members of Burkinabè civil society organizations, and 7 international organization representatives.

No armed group is known to have claimed responsibility for the attacks. However, witnesses believe the assailants were members of Islamist armed groups because of their methods of attack, choices of targets, and their clothes and turbans. People interviewed also cited statements by the attackers, including demands for residents to leave the area. Islamist armed groups have used displacement as a strategy in recent years to assert their power and authority and collectively punish villagers and townspeople for collaborating with government authorities and security forces.

The military authorities have relied heavily on local militias to counter the attacks. In October 2022, they opened a campaign to bolster these militias by recruiting 50,000 civilian auxiliaries, called Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie or VDPs). In response, Islamist armed groups attacked villages they accused of supporting the militias.

From December to January, Islamist armed groups repeatedly attacked the town of Dassa and surrounding areas in Sanguié province, where militia recruitment took place, driving residents from the area.

A 46-year-old resident said Islamist fighters killed 12 men in Dassa on January 26, allegedly in retaliation for militia recruitment in the area. “[Islamist fighters] arrived, asked who registered to be VDP. [The residents] answered: ‘No, we don’t have a candidate among us.’ [The fighters] said they knew that people had registered to be VDPs. After people denied that, they killed the men and left.”

A 27-year-old woman said armed fighters riding motorbikes and wearing ammunition belts stormed her village of Zincko in Sanmatenga province on January 4 and issued an ultimatum to residents to leave the area. “They gave us 48 hours to leave,” she said. “They stopped to say that the day after tomorrow a wave will be coming, and that they don’t want to find anyone here.”

The Islamist armed groups have also besieged several towns in Burkina Faso’s Sahel and Est regions, blocking food, other necessities, and humanitarian aid to the civilian population and causing starvation and illness among residents and displaced people. Families in Djibo in the Sahel region described feeding their starving families boiled leaves for days.

Human Rights Watch has previously documented Islamist armed group abuses in Burkina Faso, including summary executions, rapes, abductions, and pillage. The groups have also attacked students, teachers, and schools.

Burkina Faso armed forces and pro-government militias have also committed serious abuses during operations against Islamist armed groups. Human Rights Watch has separately investigated the killing and enforced disappearance of scores of civilians since February by alleged Burkinabè armed forces in the Sahel region.

The fighting between the Burkina Faso government and the armed groups qualifies as a non-international armed conflict under the laws of war. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and customary laws of war, which apply to non-state armed groups as well as national armed forces. The laws of war prohibit attacks on civilians and summary executions, collective punishment, looting, and arson, among other abuses. Serious violations of the laws of war committed by individuals with criminal intent are war crimes.

In an April 30 statement, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights condemned “the terrorist attacks against the Defence and Security Forces and the civilian population,” and underlined that “a State may also be held responsible for killings by non-state actors if it approves, supports or acquiesces in such acts or if it fails to exercise due diligence to prevent such killings or to ensure there is a proper investigation.”

Repeated Islamist armed group attacks on villages and towns with impunity have spread fear in Burkina Faso and led to retaliatory killings.

“Islamist armed groups are adding to the misery of civilians caught up in the fighting by unlawfully cutting them off from food and humanitarian aid,” Kaneza Nantulya said.

“The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights should not lose sight of the alarming situation in Burkina Faso and should help ensure the transitional military authorities impartially investigate and prosecute members of Islamist armed groups implicated in these atrocities.”

For detailed accounts of the abuses and other details, please see below. The names of those interviewed have been withheld for their protection.

Islamist Armed Group Abuses from November 2022 to February 2023

The following accounts are based largely on Human Rights Watch interviews with local residents in affected villages and towns.

Dassa, Sanguié province, Centre-Ouest region, December 2022 to February 2023

Two residents of Dassa, a town where militia recruitment had taken place, said that Islamist armed groups led repeated and escalating attacks on the town and its surroundings starting in December, culminating in killings that caused residents to flee the area. Dassa is in Sanguié province, where JNIM is known to operate and carry out attacks.

A 46-year-old man said that armed men attacked Dassa twice in December. He said that around December 15, “they [came] to attack, burn down shops, take tricycles, [and] take food … They also took a vehicle and went to the bush.” On December 21, they burned down shops, including his own, “down to the [corrugated metal] sheets,” he said.

On January 26, gunmen attacked Doh, a village about four kilometers from Dassa, allegedly killing twelve men and injuring two. “We found them together under the same barn,” he said, describing the moment the next day when he saw the aftermath of the summary executions.

The gunmen had “brought them there,” made them put their “heads low … on the ground” and “kneel next to one another” before shooting. He said his brother, a 43-year-old fisherman, had been killed by shots to his temple and thighs. He identified the other 11 victims, all men, mostly farmers and shop owners. He said the two survivors told residents what had happened.

He said that as a result, “there is no one left” in Dassa and Doh. “Everyone has cleared out.”

Gunmen wearing sand-colored clothes and turbans attacked Dassa again on February 9, killing two men. Another resident, who witnessed the killings, said the gunmen shot and killed his 50-year-old father and 27-year-old brother. “The terrorists came, and given the fear, we all fled,” he said. “But those who couldn’t escape were killed.” He said that he and his family had already been displaced by Islamist armed group attacks from Dassa to the town of Reo. Hunger forced them to return to the Dassa area in search of food the day of the attack.

“When we finished praying, we were getting ready to return to Reo … when we saw them,” he said. “We started to run. When they saw us running, they started to shoot … at all of us.” He said he swerved and found safety in a furrow. When he eventually ventured out, he found the dead bodies of his two relatives. He said each had been hit by two bullets, his father through the hip and head; his brother through the neck and hip.

Tougouri, Namentenga province, Centre-Nord region, November 2022

Islamist armed groups allegedly killed civilians in November 2022 in Tougouri, a town in an area where the armed group JNIM carries out regular attacks and where pro-government militias have been operating in large numbers following a recruitment drive in November and December.

“We heard shooting out of nowhere,” said a 37-year-old man who witnessed an attack in November 2022. He said the attackers, dressed in gray clothes and turbans, rode in on motorbikes in large numbers and looted the town.

A 25-year-old displaced woman said that gunmen wearing turbans and military fatigues killed five civilian men when they attacked Tougouri’s market in early November. Human Rights Watch was unable to ascertain whether the two witnesses described the same incident.

She said she was buying fruit juice when, at about 4 p.m., approximately 100 gunmen on motorized tricycles “encircled the market and started firing.” She described running out to hide and later seeing the bodies of the five men who had been shot. All showed bullet wounds to the head, she said. She said that the victims were not militia members – who she said did not fight back on that day – but shop owners and artisanal miners, all men aged 25 to 45. She knew one of them, Arouna B. [not his real name], a 35-year-old shop owner.

She said the attackers stayed in town for about two hours and that they looted fuel and bags of rice. “It was chaotic,” she said. “Many [residents] left the area. Those who couldn’t leave quickly are still there, but for the most part people went toward larger towns … where they think there is more safety.” She fled with her family to the town of Kaya after the attack.

Pissila, Sanmatenga province, Centre-Nord region, December 2022 to February 2023

Islamist armed groups carried out at least three attacks in villages in and around the town of Pissila in December through February, killing civilians in an apparent attempt to expel its population. Pissila is part of an area where JNIM operates and conducts attacks and raids.

A 41-year-old resident of Pissila said that in December 2022 he saw about 40 armed men wearing turbans arrive on motorcycles and start to shoot at a cell phone tower outside the town. He and other residents were on a hill about 200 meters away trying to catch a cell phone signal. “They shot mainly at the antenna, the solar panels, the batteries,” he said. “It started a fire.”

Gunmen attacked Pissila again in mid-December, burning down shops and stealing food supplies, said a 39-year-old local business owner. She said that after the attack, she and her family escaped from the town at night.

In January, about 40 gunmen on motorcycles and wearing military fatigues and turbans entered the village of Dofinega, about 16 kilometers from Pissila, and killed 17 men, said a woman who lost 3 of her brothers in the attack.

She said that she came out of her house alongside four other women to see what was happening. She said she saw six gunmen who had gathered her brothers and some children on a field about 50 meters away:

The others were children, so [the gunmen spared them and] selected the adults to execute…. They made them lie down … on their stomachs…. People begged, asking not to be killed, but the terrorists refused. They executed them in front of us. They shot them in the head.

Elsewhere in the village, she said, the gunmen killed other men, including a farmer and a herder. She said that the gunmen told people to leave during the attack: “‘You no longer have the right to stay here!’ they said.” The attack prompted a mass exodus from the village. She said she heard that at least 1,500 people fled.

In February, about 100 gunmen rounded up a group of about 60 residents of Noaka village, about 12 kilometers from Pissila, and issued an ultimatum for them to leave the area, said a 41-year-old woman who was part of the group. She said:

Around 2 p.m. … the noise of motorcycles and shooting began. The jihadists [Islamist fighters] were riding two-by-two and wore military clothing.… They fired in the air and gathered people. Those who were fleeing, they tried to gather them … They explained who they were … [that] they were jihadists … And they gave the ultimatum to leave Noaka within the next three days, and if [we] don’t obey, during their next visit they will kill the maximum [number of people].

She said that she and her family fled on the second day, carrying as much as they could on carts. “As early as the first day some people left, the second and third days too,” she said. “I don’t think there is anyone [left] over there.”

The first incursions of Islamist armed groups in Ouanobian village, roughly 15 kilometers north of Pissila, where militias were based, took place in November 2022, said a 26-year-old villager. She said she was busy milling grain for dinner when she saw “a great number of jihadists who were coming,” firing their guns in the air. She said she hid in her hut and that when she later came out, she “could observe the looted shops, the stolen animals…. Putting together small ruminants [and] cattle, at a minimum [they stole] 1,000 [animals].”

A 25-year-old woman said that in December about 30 gunmen wearing turbans and carrying bandoliers over their shoulders killed two of her relatives, Usman O., 70, and Yacouba I., 65, [not their real names] both farmers in Ouanobian: “I saw when [the gunmen] pulled them out of the house where they were hiding, ordered them to put their hands behind their backs and then one [of the gunmen] shot them.” She said that Usman was shot in the chest and Yacouba in the stomach. She added that she left Ouanobian seven days after the attack with other family members to go to Kaya in Sanmatenga province.

She said that around mid-January, gunmen wearing military fatigues and turbans returned to Ouanobian and burned down her house. She witnessed the attack, saying that it took place around 7 a.m. on a Friday and “was the same scenario”:

They started to shoot in the air … The column headed towards our compound and burned everything. They put us outside. The few animals that were in the courtyard, they untied them. And they set fire … [using] lighters … with straw.… The storage halls, the huts, everything burned…. the clothes, the dishes, our bedding.

Zincko, Sanmatenga province, Centre-Nord region, December 2022 to January 2023

Islamist armed groups allegedly linked to JNIM led at least three incursions into the village of Zincko in December and early January, looting, shooting in the air, and demanding that villagers tell them where they could find government security forces, residents said. They eventually issued two ultimatums for residents to leave the village and attacked a nearby militia patrol, witnesses said. Following a firefight, nearly all villagers fled.

Men wearing turbans and military fatigues and carrying black flags with unspecified lettering looted motorcycles, phones, and food during an attack on the Zincko market one morning in early December, said a 27-year-old woman who was at the market that day. She said:Bottom of Form

When the jihadists came to find our markets, they started to fire in the air and people ran in all directions,” she said. “They took what they wanted … many rice bags and cooking oil drums … motorbikes … phones. [They also] burned down shops.

She said that on January 1, gunmen returned to interrogate her about the presence of security forces and militia, and to buy engine oil.

Three days later, she said, gunmen wearing “cold-weather clothes,” carrying AK-47-style assault rifles, and riding on motorcycles returned and went around the town to give residents an ultimatum to leave within 48 hours. “It was something that lasted a minute or two,” she said: “They stopped to say that the day after tomorrow a wave will be coming, and that they don’t want to find anyone here.”

Another Zincko resident said that about 60 armed men on motorcycles wearing “cold-weather clothes” and turbans came to the town in January and split into groups to order residents to leave within 48 hours. He said the group of gunmen split up to inform residents in different parts of town: “It’s when they passed by my courtyard that they gave me the information … tell[ing] us to leave within two days.” The man fled with his family the next day.

Around 5 p.m. one day in late January, an armed group attacked a patrol of militia in Zincko, said a 55-year-old woman, who witnessed and lost two relatives in the attack. She said that militia forces had arrived in Zincko from Mané that morning to search and interrogate people. The shooting went on for two hours, she said, adding that seven militia members and “many terrorists” were killed.

She said that her relatives, Ousmanou B., in his 70s, and Abdoulaye B., 31, [not their real names] were both civilians. She said they were killed by stray bullets:

Ousmanou was … east of the village…. [He] had gone to untie his animal, an ox that he had tied somewhere to graze. That’s where he got a bullet in the chest. We went … the next day … after the VDPs had gone to identify the various bodies, and that’s when we found him.

She said that they found Abdoulaye in front of his house with a bullet in his right side.

After the deadly shootout, she said, “there were so many unburied bodies that life was not possible [anymore], because of the smell … Everyone left.”

Arbinda, Soum province, Sahel region, January 2023

On January 12, armed men abducted over 60 people foraging for food in the department of Arbinda. Arbinda is located in an area mainly controlled by JNIM, but where fighters from ISGS have also carried out attacks. A week later, the Burkinabè information agency announced that the captives – whom they identified as 39 children and 27 women – had been found.

Five survivors said that on January 12, they and other women and children from neighboring villages had set out for the bush just outside of Arbinda to forage for food. At around midday in the Liki commune, approximately 30 armed men on motorcycles dressed in military fatigues and wearing turbans detained them.

From Liki, the captors led the women and children on a trek to Foubé, Centre-Nord region, about a 130-kilometer journey away, where they were held throughout their captivity. Survivors said that while their captors gave them food and water, they spent their days in captivity in fear of what their attackers would do to them and what would become of their families back home.

One of the women said that their abduction was not the first time she had seen armed groups in the bush while foraging for food, but that until then, women had been left alone or sent away with verbal threats for intruding on Islamist armed group-held territory. “Since January 2022, men cannot go even one kilometer from Arbinda without being attacked by terrorists,” she said. “For women it was easier to go out, we could get around better than the men.”

Arbinda residents have been battling extreme hunger as a direct result of a siege by the Islamist armed groups. In November 2022, residents desperate for food vandalized a state-run grain warehouse.

Siege of Djibo, Soum province, Sahel region

JNIM forces have besieged the town of Djibo since February. The Islamist armed group controls the access roads to Djibo along which they have planted explosives. They have destroyed bridges, water, and communications infrastructure as well as prevented deliveries of market supplies, isolating the town from the rest of the country.

People cannot move freely and lack access to basic goods and services including food, water, electricity, and health care. Prices have risen so much that people are unable to buy food staples and other necessities. The Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which provides early warning and analysis on acute food insecurity, reported that the price of millet in Djibo increased more than 500 percent compared with 2022 and Djibo “faces a credible risk of famine through September 2023” as the siege is expected to continue.

A woman with five children, four of whom have physical and psychological disabilities, said that her children have suffered acute hunger in Djibo since the siege began. “I had nothing but leaves to feed my children,” she said. “Since March [2023] I have received some food aid from the World Food Programme, but it is not enough … We cannot cultivate our fields, we can’t leave Djibo, we are like prisoners here.” She said she had fled to Djibo after Islamist armed groups had attacked her village of Friguidi in Soum province in March.

A humanitarian worker who was in Djibo from March to May said she found “a dead city,” where “everything is paralyzed, the market is empty, all the products are expensive, and there is no telephone network.”

Attacks by Islamist armed groups and counterinsurgency operations by the Burkinabè armed forces around Djibo have led to mass displacement, with thousands of people seeking refuge in Djibo. The international humanitarian organization Doctors without Borders stated that as of early May, “of the 300,000 inhabitants [of Djibo], almost 270,000 are displaced, half of whom are children, living in camps or with host families.”

Displaced and host communities depend on access to humanitarian assistance to survive. In October 2022, almost the only food that residents and displaced people of Djibo consumed were wild leaves. Human Rights Watch spoke with five displaced women who said they fled their villages following attacks by Islamist fighters and went to Djibo “alone,” “traumatized,” “carrying nothing but my clothes,” and were forced to “sleep under the stars,” “begging for food.”

One woman with nine children who has been displaced from Sê village since 2018, said:

All I had was leaves to feed my family for four days [in December 2022] … [On the fourth day], when I boiled water with leaves and gave it to my children, my 3-year-old girl looked me in the eye and cried. I cried with her. I went begging for food. A man gave me one bag of rice which I meticulously divided into three parts, and we ate this for three more days, waiting for humanitarian assistance to come.

Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Human Rights Watch (HRW).