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Human Rights Watch warns army and United Nations failing to stop massacre in Mali

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An ethnic militia in Mali massacred over 35 villagers on February 14, 2020 after government troops left the area, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. The killings in the village of Ogossagou occurred hours after village leaders alerted government officials that the Malian army had vacated a post created following the March 23, 2019 massacre of 150 people in the same village, and an hour after a United Nations peacekeeper convoy had passed through.

Armed ethnic Dogon men chased civilians into the bush and killed them, decapitating and mutilating some, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. Most victims were ethnic Peuhl men from the village. An elderly Peuhl woman and four children were also killed, and 19 villagers remain unaccounted for. Witnesses gave Human Rights Watch the names of 20 Dogon men who witnesses recognized as being among the attackers, most from Ogossagou’s Dogon neighborhood, including some who had allegedly participated in the March 2019 killings.

“Ethnic militias who apparently have no fear of being held to account have once again murdered and mutilated dozens of civilians,” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “The second massacre in Ogossagou was especially horrendous because the Malian army and UN peacekeepers might have prevented it.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 18 people in Mali in February and March, including 10 witnesses to the attack, Peuhl community leaders, Malian justice and security officials, and foreign diplomats. In response to letters from Human Rights Watch, the government, in letters from two ministries, Defense and Veterans Affairs and Justice and Human Rights, said a “tactical error” led to the massacre, and that disciplinary measures were immediately taken, pending investigations which were being conducted. The UN mission said an investigation into the Ogossagou incident was underway.  

On February 13, Malian army soldiers withdrew from their post in Ogossagou without providing an explanation to the Peuhl villagers. Within hours, they observed a build-up of armed men in the Dogon neighborhood. Ogossagou villagers and Peuhl community leaders in Bamako, the capital, said they made numerous frantic calls to high-level Malian authorities, including several ministers, and to the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA, warning of an imminent attack. A convoy of UN peacekeepers passed through the village an hour before the attack, apparently looking for the village of Ogossagou, but left after Dogon men apparently misdirected them, witnesses said.

Shortly after 5 a.m. on February 14, the attack began. “They searched through the bush, looking for people to kill,” a witness said. “They found my friend meters from where I was hiding … they dragged him out, shot him, and then mutilated his body.” Another witness said, “I saw them pull Bocarie, 47 years old, out of a house. ‘Please, in the name of God, don’t kill me!’ he said, but they slashed him with a machete and cut his throat.”

The killing only stopped three hours later, after Malian troops and UN peacekeepers arrived on the scene. One assailant was apprehended but the rest fled.

Ogossagou residents expressed outrage at the lack of protection and the lack of justice for the earlier massacre. “If those who killed in 2019 were put in jail, this second attack wouldn’t have happened,” a witness said. “What do I say to a woman who lost two children in last year’s attack, and her only remaining child in this one?” asked an elder.

Deadly incidents of communal violence in central Mali have risen steadily since 2015, when Islamist armed groups moved from northern into central Mali. The violence has pitted ethnic self-defense groups from the agrarian Bambara and Dogon communities, which formed in response to the inadequate presence of state security forces, against mainly nomadic Peuhl or Fulani communities, which have been accused of supporting the armed Islamists.

Since 2015, Human Rights Watch has documented the killing of over 800 civilians in central Mali in dozens of large-scale massacres of Peuhl civilians by Dogon and Bambara militias, as well as numerous killings, including massacres, of civilians by armed Peuhl men and Islamist armed groups. The epicenter of the violence is in Mopti region, and Bankass cercle, the administrative area where Ogossagou is located, has been particularly hard hit since 2019 with scores of reprisal killings of farmers and herders from all ethnic groups.

Malian authorities should urgently arrest and appropriately prosecute those responsible for the February 14 massacre, including those who planned and orchestrated the attack, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities should disarm all abusive militias, including in Ogossagou, and resettle vulnerable residents who want to leave the village.  

“The Malian authorities and parliament as well as the United Nations should investigate the role of the Malian army and UN peacekeepers, and take appropriate disciplinary action against anyone who was negligent in their duty to protect civilians in Ogossagou,” Dufka said.

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