More than 500 civilians have been killed by armed Islamists in the Sahel region of Africa since the beginning of 2021, according to Human Rights Watch.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on June 5, armed Islamist fighters stormed an artisanal gold mine near the village of Solhan in Yagha province in northeastern Burkina Faso. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that the attackers opened fire on anyone who moved, killing more than 140 people. Some villagers were shot as they ran for cover, others as they took refuge in homes and shops, and others as they begged for their lives. Among the victims were at least eight children.
« The scene was apocalyptic. Wounded men, bleeding and dazed, wandered among the bodies lying all over the place, » said one man. « I found my little brother’s body riddled with bullets.
The attack raises the death toll of civilians killed by armed Islamists in the Sahel to more than 500 since the beginning of 2021, according to Human Rights Watch research. The epicentre of the rising violence is the porous tri-border area between Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. Villagers have been killed while tending to their livestock, taking part in religious ceremonies, drinking tea or sleeping at home.
In Niger, armed Islamist groups killed more than 300 villagers in three horrific attacks in the Tillabéri and Tahoua regions. Attacks in May in Burkina Faso’s Oudalan province left more than 30 villagers dead, including some who were attending a baptism. « The commander ordered the men to lie face down on the ground and then shouted at his fighters to carry out the executions, » said one witness.
In most cases, Islamist armed groups appear to have targeted villages that had organised, or planned to organise, local defence groups. However, attacks on villages without distinguishing between civilians and combatants are war crimes.
The armed Islamist groups should stop their illegal attacks. At the same time, government security forces in the Sahel, who have themselves committed numerous abuses against suspects in custody and against communities seen as supporting Islamist groups, should recognise that atrocities perpetrated by their opponents never justify their own crimes. With the support of international forces, they should do more to protect vulnerable communities in the Sahel.