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.
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.