Burkina Faso: accounts of civilian abuse

Map of Burkina Faso Map of Burkina Faso © Nauredom via iStock

Since late 2022, armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have killed scores of civilians, looted and burned property, and forced thousands to flee in attacks across the country

Since 2022, Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have been committing crimes and atrocities, including killings, looting, and arson, forcing thousands of people to flee attacks that plague the entire country. Two strategies are favored by armed Islamist groups: siege and displacement. Through siege and blockade of cities, they deprive their residents of food, basic services and humanitarian assistance, resulting in such disease and starvation that some families recounted feeding their children boiled leaves for days. Instead, displacement, that is, the forced abandonment of villages and towns, is used as a strategy to assert one's power and authority. In addition, collective punishment of villagers accused of collaborating with government authorities and security forces is not uncommon. 

Burkina Faso's transitional military government, formed in October 2022, has relied heavily on local militias to counter attacks, which have also been reinforced through the recruitment of 50,000 civilian auxiliaries, called "Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland." In response, Islamist armed groups attacked towns and villages blamed for supporting the militias. Carine Kaneza Nantulya, deputy Africa director for Human Rights Watch, said that "Islamist armed groups are wreaking havoc in Burkina Faso," and that "transitional authorities should work with relevant regional bodies and governments to provide better protection and assistance to people at risk." For several months, Islamist groups have repeatedly attacked the town of Dassa and surrounding areas in Sanguié province, where militia recruitment has taken place, driving residents from the area.

The intensification of clashes with Islamist groups, the increasing number of casualties, and the loss of government-controlled territory (Al-Qaeda controls 40 percent of Burkina Faso's territory to date), have also led to tensions and imbalances in the country's domestic politics, which, in fact, has been rocked by two military coups since 2022. Moreover, the government's efforts to combat the Islamist insurgency spreading from neighboring Mali have resulted in rising casualties and displaced people, whose numbers have exceeded 2 million. 

Between January and May, Human Rights Watch interviewed about 30 people, including family members of victims, witnesses, members of civil society and representatives of international organizations, about abuses allegedly committed by Islamist gunmen. "Allegedly" because to date it still appears that no armed group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but witnesses believe the attackers were members of Islamist armed groups in light of their methods of attack, choices of targets, clothing, and turbans. 

The fighting between the Burkina Faso government and Islamist armed groups qualifies as a non-international armed conflict under the laws of war. Applicable law includes Common Article 3 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary laws of war, which apply to non-state armed groups and national armed forces. Laws of war that, in each case, prohibit attacks on civilians and summary executions, collective punishment, looting and arson. 

In an April 30 statement, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights condemned "terrorist attacks against defense and security forces and against the civilian population" and stressed that "a state can 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 that there is a proper investigation."

Below are some accounts of abuses committed by armed Islamist groups from November 2022 to February 2023, obtained through Human Rights Watch interviews with local residents in the affected villages and towns.

  • Town of Dassa, Sanguié privy

Two residents of Dassa, a town where militia recruitment has taken place, said Islamist armed groups have conducted repeated and escalating attacks against the town and its environs since December, culminating in killings that forced residents to flee the area. 

In January, gunmen attacked Doh, a village about four kilometers from Dassa, killing 12 men and wounding two, who were found the next day. The other 11 victims were all men, mostly farmers and shopkeepers, identified by the two surviving men.  

In February, armed men wearing sand-colored clothing and turbans attacked Dassa again, killing two men. Another resident, who witnessed the killings, recounted that the gunmen shot and killed his 50-year-old father and 27-year-old brother. The same witness said that, given the fear, they all fled, but those who could not escape were killed. He added that he and his family had already been displaced by attacks by Islamic armed groups from Dassa to the town of Reo, but that hunger had forced them to return to the Dassa area in search of food on the day of the attack.

  •  City of Tougouri 

Armed Islamist groups reportedly 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 campaign in November and December.

A 37-year-old man who witnessed an attack in November said the attackers, dressed in gray robes and turbans, rode in in large numbers and looted the town. 

A 25-year-old displaced woman said about 100 gunmen, wearing turbans and military fatigues, killed five civilian men when they attacked the Tougouri market in early November, and remained in the town for about two hours, looting it.

Human Rights Watch was unable to ascertain whether the two witnesses described the same incident.

  • City of Pissila 

Armed Islamist groups carried out at least three attacks on villages in and around the town of Pissila from December to 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.

One resident recounted seeing, in December 2022, about 40 turbaned gunmen arrive on motorcycles and begin shooting at a cell phone tower outside of town, starting a fire. 

A local businessman reported that gunmen attacked Pissila again in mid-December, burning stores and stealing food supplies. He added that after the attack, he and his family fled the town overnight.

In January, about 40 gunmen on motorcycles and wearing military suits and turbans entered the village of Dofinega, about 16 kilometers from Pissila, and killed 17 men. A woman who lost three of her brothers in the attack said she saw six gunmen who had rounded up her brothers and some children in a field about 50 meters away. They spared the children, but selected the adults to be executed. The attack caused a mass exodus from the village, from which at least 1,500 people fled.  

In February, about 100 gunmen rounded up a group of about 60 residents of the village of Noaka, about 12 kilometers from Pissila, and issued an ultimatum for them to leave the area within the next three days, recounted one of the women part of the group, otherwise they would kill anyone they found during their next visit.  

  • Village of Zincko  

Armed Islamist groups allegedly linked to JNIM conducted at least three raids on Zincko village in December and early January, looting, shooting into the air, and demanding that villagers tell where they could find government security forces. Eventually, they issued two ultimatums for residents to leave the village and attacked a nearby militia patrol. Following a firefight, almost all of the villagers fled.

Men wearing turbans and military fatigues and carrying black flags with unspecified inscriptions looted motorcycles, phones and food during an attack on the Zincko market one morning in early December, reported a woman who was at the market that day. She added that armed men returned on Jan. 1 to question her about the presence of security forces and militia, and that three days later they returned on motorcycles and toured the city to give residents a 48-hour ultimatum.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

  • Department of Arbinda

The Burkinabé News Agency reported that armed men abducted more than 60 people seeking food in Arbinda Department in January. The captives were found a week later. Five survivors recounted that their captors took them to Foubé, about 130 kilometers away, where they were held throughout their captivity, spent in fear of what their attackers would do to them and what would happen to their families back home.

  • City of Djibo

In February, the town of Djibo was besieged. The Islamist armed group, which controls access roads to the city, planted explosives that destroyed bridges and communication infrastructure, preventing market supplies and isolating the city from the rest of the country. Citizens are unable to move freely and lack access to basic goods and services, including food, water, electricity and health care, partly due to rising prices.  

A woman with five children, four of whom have physical and psychological disabilities, said they have gone hungry in Djibo since the beginning of the siege, despite receiving insufficient food aid from the World Food Program. Not having the freedom to leave the city or even to cultivate their fields, they feel to all intents and purposes like prisoners. 

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

The international humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders said that as of early May the nearly 270,000 displaced people, half of whom are children, are living in camps or with host families, depending almost exclusively on access to humanitarian assistance to survive. The severity of the situation is such that, for months, the only food Djibo residents and IDPs consumed was wild leaves.



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by Chiara Cacciatore

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