Residents describe mass executions as graves with over 180 bodies are found in Burkina Faso

Common graves containing at least 180 bodies have been found in a northern town in Burkina Faso in recent months, and available evidence suggests government security force involvement in mass extrajudicial executions, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday. The government should seek assistance from the United Nations and other partners to conduct proper exhumations, return remains to families, and hold those responsible to account.

Residents of the town of Djibo who saw the bodies told Human Rights Watch that the dead, all men, had between November 2019 and June 2020 been left in groups of from 3 to 20 along major roadways, under bridges, and in fields and vacant lots. With few exceptions, the bodies were found within a 5-kilometer radius of central Djibo.

Residents buried most in common burials in March and April, while other remains are still unburied. They said they believed the majority of the victims were ethnic Fulani or Peuhl men, identified by their clothing and physical features, and that many were found blindfolded and with bound hands, and had been shot. Several residents said that they knew numerous victims, including relatives.  

“The Burkina Faso authorities need to urgently uncover who turned Djibo into a ‘killing field,’” said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. “Existing information points toward government security forces, so it’s critical to have impartial investigations, evidence properly gathered, and families informed about what happened to their loved ones.”

Since November, Human Rights Watch has interviewed 23 people by telephone and in person who described seeing the bodies. Several interviewees provided hand-drawn maps of where they found and buried the dead. All believed that government security forces, who control Djibo, had executed the vast majority of the men. However, none had witnessed the killings and Human Rights Watch could not independently verify those claims. Human Rights Watch is analyzing satellite imagery of the locations of common graves in the vicinity.

On June 28, Human Rights Watch wrote the Burkinabè government detailing the major findings of the research, and on July 3, the Minister of Defense responded on behalf of the government, committing to investigate the allegations and to ensure the respect of human rights in security operations. He said the killings occurred during an uptick in attacks by armed Islamists and suggested they could have been committed by these groups, using stolen army uniforms and logistics, noting it is at times “difficult for the population to distinguish between armed terrorist groups and the Defense and Security Forces.” The minister also confirmed the government’s approval for the establishment of an office in Ouagadogou by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Beginning in 2016, armed Islamist groups allied with Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State have attacked security force posts and civilians throughout Burkina Faso, but mostly in the Sahel region bordering Mali and Niger.

Human Rights Watch has since 2017 documented the killing of several hundred civilians by armed Islamist groups along with their widespread attacks on schools. Human Rights Watch has also documented the unlawful killing of several hundred men, apparently by government security forces, for their alleged support of these groups, including 31 men found executed after the security forces detained them in Djibo on April 9.

The 23 people interviewed, including farmers, traders, herders, civil servants, community leaders, and aid workers, believed the security forces had detained the men as suspected members or supporters of Islamist armed groups.

“So many of the dead were blindfolded, had their hands tied up … and were shot in the head,” said a community leader. “The bodies I saw appeared in the morning … dumped at night on the outskirts of Djibo, a town under the control of the army and in the middle of a curfew imposed and patrolled by the army.”

Some residents said that they found the bodies after hearing the sound of vehicles passing and bursts of gunfire at night. “We’ve grown accustomed to hearing the sound of shots ringing out at night, and later seeing bodies in the bush or along the road,” an elder from Djibo said.

“At night, so many times I’d hear the sound of vehicles and then, bam! bam! bam!” said a farmer. “And the next morning we’d see or hear of bodies found in this place or that.”

At least 114 men were buried in 14 common graves during a mass burial on March 8 and 9 organized by residents with the approval of the military and local authorities. Local residents also buried 18 men, found around March 18 about a kilometer east of Djibo, in a common grave in early April. The bodies of another approximately 40 men, including 20 allegedly discovered in mid-March south of Djibo and another 18 found in May near the airport, had yet to be buried.

An ethnic dynamic underscores the violence in Burkina Faso. The Islamist armed groups largely recruit from the nomadic Peuhl or Fulani community, and their attacks have primarily targeted agrarian communities including the Mosssi, Foulse, and Gourmantche. The vast majority of men killed by alleged security forces are Peuhl because of their perceived support of the armed Islamists.

“Djibo residents should feel protected by, not terrified of, their own army. The government’s failure to make good on promises of accountability for past allegations of security force abuse, including those in Djibo, appears to have emboldened the perpetrators,” Dufka said. “The authorities need to put an end to unlawful killings through credible and independent investigations.”

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