(Bamako, April 20, 2021) – Malian soldiers allegedly killed at least 34 villagers, forcibly disappeared at least 16 people, and abused detainees during counterterrorism operations in the Mopti region of central Mali, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should investigate allegations of abuse by security forces in the Mopti region.
« Malian security forces have shown little respect for human life in recent counterterrorism operations, » said Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch. « Perpetrating serious abuses in the name of security only fuels recruitment into the ranks of armed groups that commit their own abuses, and undermines the confidence of local populations. «
The government said it had opened investigations into incidents in the towns of Libé and Kobou, but family members of the victims told Human Rights Watch that the authorities had not contacted them. Malian military prosecutors should independently investigate the allegations and suspend officers involved in serious abuses. The Ministry of Defense should ensure that Mali’s national gendarmerie, which is responsible for promoting discipline and protecting the rights of detainees, is involved in all military operations.
Between November 2020 and April 2021, Human Rights Watch conducted in-person and telephone interviews with 43 individuals aware of seven incidents of alleged serious abuses by security forces. They included witnesses, local community leaders, government officials, and foreign diplomats. The incidents took place between October 2020 and March 2021 in and around the towns, villages or hamlets of Boni, Feto Hore Niwa, Kobou, Libé, Solla and Sokoura.
Malian security forces allegedly committed the abuses during military operations in response to the presence of armed Islamist groups largely linked to al-Qa’ida. These findings follow Human Rights Watch’s research in central Mali since 2015. Human Rights Watch has also documented serious abuses committed by Islamist armed groups and ethnic militias in central Mali during the same period, including summary executions of civilians and the indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices. Detailed findings will be published by Human Rights Watch in a forthcoming report.
Witnesses described how on March 23, soldiers in Boni detained dozens of bus passengers after finding suspicious material in the luggage compartment, blindfolded them, and severely beat them. At least 13 passengers were reportedly « disappeared ».
Ten witnesses described a military operation on 22 October 2020 in and around Libé, during which security forces reportedly killed 25 villagers, including women, children and elderly people, as many fled.
One villager described seeing soldiers execute six men they had detained minutes earlier. « The soldiers took the men into an abandoned shop, » he said. « A [soldier] who had taken up position at the entrance opened fire. They were lying there dying in a bloodbath. «
All parties to the armed conflict in Mali have legal obligations under Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and other treaties and customary laws of war, which require humane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in detention. Perpetrators of serious violations of the laws of war, including summary executions and torture, can be prosecuted for war crimes. Mali is a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which has opened an investigation into alleged war crimes committed in Mali since 2012.
On April 7, Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Malian government detailing the allegations of abuse in its report. In his April 13 response, the Secretary General of the Ministry of Defense and Veterans indicated that for all the incidents cited in the report, « enquiries have been opened and investigations are ongoing » and noted that military personnel « have been heard. The letter added that investigations into the allegations concerning Libé and Kobou have been hampered by the security situation, which remains precarious, and by « the reluctance of some people to testify.
« Promising to investigate abuses is a positive step, but the Malian government has failed to deliver on many previous commitments of this kind, » Dufka said. « The Malian authorities should regain control of abusive units and do much more to ensure discipline in operations, hold abusers to account, and prevent further atrocities. «
Allegations of abuse by the Malian army in the Mopti region
Boni, March 2021
On 18 March, security forces in Boni, in the Douentza Cercle, reportedly executed Boucary Boulde and Salmane Hamne Noungary, aged 37 and 35 respectively, minutes after one soldier was killed and another seriously injured by an IED. According to three witnesses, a soldier randomly targeted the victims among a group of traders on their way to the Boni market.
One witness said:
We were behind a convoy of soldiers when the explosion happened at about 9.10am. The soldiers ordered everyone on the road to lie down. Boucary and Salmane were only 10 metres behind the FAMa [Malian Armed Forces] vehicles. After firing into the air, a soldier forced them off their motorbikes and shot them at point blank range, no questions asked. Boukary was still alive but no one dared to come to his aid; he died a few minutes later. Everyone was shot at least twice.
Afterwards, the soldiers severely beat and stripped more than a dozen family members who were waiting for permission to collect the bodies for burial. « As we waited near the bodies, the FAMa started beating and kicking us, » said one family member. « After throwing us on the bonnet of their vehicles, they stole our phones, eight motorbikes and money. «
On 23 March, members of the security forces carrying out a routine check at a military checkpoint near Boni found a military uniform and boots in the luggage compartment of a bus that had left Bamako on 22 March. They tied the hands and blindfolded about 35 men who were on the bus. They then drove them to the military camp, where they were violently beaten for several hours.
The status or whereabouts of at least 13 of these men remain unknown. Many witnesses to the arrests and ill-treatment fear that the men may have died as a result of the beatings in detention. Human Rights Watch obtained credible information that security forces buried a number of bodies in a mass grave on March 25, about one kilometre from the camp.
Human Rights Watch spoke with 15 people familiar with the incident, including passengers, family members of the disappeared, and villagers. Human Rights Watch also reviewed a video showing 13 men after their 24-hour detention, who showed clear signs of severe mistreatment.
Twelve of the disappeared men, whose names were provided to Human Rights Watch by their families, were from Burkina Faso. Family members said the men had been living as refugees in Bamako for several years and were on their way back to their villages in Burkina Faso, following the improved security situation in their country.
« We arrived at the checkpoint around 5pm, » said one passenger. « The soldiers ordered us to get off, and checked our identity papers. Our drama started when they found the Rangers [a type of boot] and a military outfit. They got angry, tearing clothes stored in the luggage, with which they blindfolded us and tied our hands. «
« They divided the 35 men into three groups, according to their age, put them in military vehicles and drove them towards their camp, 500 metres away. They did not harm or detain the eight women on the bus, » said a man who was at the scene.
One passenger described the abuse: « The beatings started to rain down in front of the bus. They kicked us and beat us savagely with belts, tree branches and rifle butts. The abuse continued in the military camp. «
« They beat us all night, » said another passenger. « I was in severe pain. I was burned with a cigarette. Throughout the night I heard people moaning, crying, asking for forgiveness. We all understood why they wanted to know more about the military uniforms, but they hardly asked us any questions about it, preferring to insult us, accusing us of being terrorists and threatening to kill us. I was sure I was going to die, no one could sleep. «
Villagers said that about 20 of the 35 detainees were released the next day. But family members of the passengers and residents of Boni said the circumstances of the remaining men remained unknown. One former detainee said he believed his 23-year-old brother had died as a result of the abuse:
At night, during the breaks [from abuse], I would whisper with my brother. The last time we talked he moaned, saying he couldn’t take it, he could hardly speak. I told him to hold on [to life]. I fainted and when I woke up, he didn’t respond. The next day, soldiers took me and several others out of the camp. As they were releasing us, one soldier said, « Come on, you survived. « That’s what made me think that many others, including my brother, had died.
Feto Hore Niwa hamlet, 28 January 2021
On 28 January, 80-year-old Mama Ag and his 11-year-old grandson, Hama Agaly, ‘disappeared’ from their home in a small hamlet about 16 kilometres from Kobou village. The family member who last saw them told Human Rights Watch that he suspected the army had forced them to disappear:
Every morning I walk a few kilometres to take my sheep to a watering hole and always leave the old man, who is blind, to look after the boy. When I got home at about 2 p.m., they were gone. Around the house, there were large vehicle tracks and boot prints in front of Mama Ag’s house. I followed the tyre tracks in the direction of Mondoro and, a kilometre away, I found the stick the boy used to guide the old man by the roadside. A shepherd I met on the way told me that he had seen a military convoy pass their hut at about 10 o’clock in the morning. It is this – the stick and the testimony about a convoy – that leads me to believe that they were taken away by the FAMa.
A community elder said: « I helped the family look for them everywhere, in the bush, in neighbouring villages and in the prisons of Hombori, Douentza, Sevare and Bamako. They were nowhere to be found. «
Kobou village, 13 January 2021
On 13 January, dozens of Malian security forces accompanied by several soldiers who appeared to be members of the French-led Operation Barkhane carried out a cordon and search operation in the village of Kobou. Five witnesses said the operation lasted from around 5am until midday. Malian soldiers arrested four villagers during the operation and loaded them into at least two Malian army vehicles that were heading north.
Two of the detained men, Mamoudou Hama Diallo, and Hamidou Yero Diallo, aged 31 and 50 respectively, were found dead the next day 10 kilometres north of Kobou. The cause of death has not yet been established. A third individual, Amadoure Diallo, aged 48, was the subject of an enforced disappearance. The fourth man was released after approximately two weeks in detention.
One witness described the operation: « There were about ten vehicles – pick-ups, trucks and some armoured cars. They blocked all the exits and conducted a thorough search [of the village]. A helicopter was flying overhead. « None of the witnesses described any fighting between rival forces that day.
The soldiers quickly separated the four detained men from the other villagers; two of them appeared to have been beaten in detention. One witness said:
‘I was saying my prayers at home when three soldiers – two Malians and a white soldier – searched my house and drove my wife and me about 40 metres away, where dozens of villagers were sitting. A Barkhane soldier filmed us and some other white soldiers were moving around. The FAMa asked us about the terrorists, discouraging the youth from joining the jihadist lifestyle. We were not hit, but a Malian soldier threatened to kill us. A few hours later, the soldier from Operation Barkhane said that the women, and us afterwards, should be released.
Witnesses said French soldiers warned Malian soldiers against arresting villagers without sufficient evidence, including, as one noted, « a man who had a video of a terrorist on his phone, and another for wearing short trousers and a long beard. He said, « The Frenchman pointed out that you need stronger evidence to arrest someone. «
Another witness described the four detainees who were taken away:
I saw the FAMa violently dragging the four men by the neck. Mamoudou Hama Diallo and Hamidou Yero Diallo were walking in zigzags with great difficulty. I did not see any blood, but they could barely stand. The FAMa blindfolded them and tied their hands with their turbans, then threw them like sacks of rice into the trucks.
A witness on the convoy said that about an hour later, the convoy stopped in a wooded area, where the four detainees got off the trucks. « The detainees were moaning in pain. One man in particular… I heard the soldiers say: ‘He will die, he will not survive’. «
On 14 January, three villagers found the bodies of Mamoudou Hama Diallo and Hamidou Yero Diallo in a remote wood, known locally as Boga Laiga, 10km northwest of Kobou. An elder said:
On 14 January, a local shepherd informed me that he had discovered two bodies. The news spread quickly and we went with a group to see for ourselves. They were buried in a shallow grave. I clearly recognised their faces and clothes… They were blindfolded, their hands were tied. We dug a deeper grave and placed tree branches over it to mark the spot. We buried them quickly so as not to attract attention, especially as we suspected the army was responsible for the killings.
Another villager described their bodies:
‘I did not see any blood, gunshot wounds or injuries to the skull, face or upper bodies. I didn’t see any bullet casings either. I can’t speak for the rest of their bodies, as they were half buried. We talked among ourselves and concluded that they had been strangled. The tyre tracks nearby were all over the place and headed north. The place is isolated, but we know the forest like the back of our hand, you can’t hide bodies in our area.
A 15 January communiqué issued by the Malian army’s Chief of General Staff said that the four men were members of « armed terrorist groups » captured during heavy fighting and that « three of the four prisoners lost their lives during their transfer from Boulkessi to Sévaré ». The statement added that an investigation had been opened to determine the circumstances in which these individuals died.
Hamlet of Solla, 12 January 2021
On 12 January at around 4pm, a convoy of soldiers patrolling the hamlet of Solla shot at a small group of men gathered near the local well to water their animals, apparently executing three of them. The victims, all residents of the hamlet, were Amadou Allaye Diallo, Oumarou Amadou Diallo, and Haméré Diallo, aged 25, 30 and 55, respectively. Two witnesses stated that they heard the bursts of a semi-automatic rifle as the military convoy passed through the area, noting that they did not find any weapons on or near the victims.
One of the witnesses said:
The military convoy passed through our hamlet from south to north. I saw it from a distance as I was taking my animals to the well. We all fled to hide in the bush. A few minutes later, I heard a series of gunshots and then the sound of the convoy as it continued on its way. There was no sound of confrontation, just a burst of gunfire. After the convoy had moved far enough away from the area, we went to the place where the shots were fired – towards the well – and found the dead.
The other witness described the bodies:
‘They were lying in the sand, towards where they were trying to flee. The first was Amadou, who had been shot in the head. Then five metres away was Haméré, and 10 or 20 metres away was Oumarou, both shot in the chest. If they suspected them, why didn’t the soldiers stop and question them instead of shooting them?
Village of Sokoura, 11 January 2021
On the morning of 12 January 2021, the bodies of Boukary Boureima Sankare, aged 37, and Mamadou Boukary Sankare, aged 30, were found on the outskirts of Sokoura town. Two residents who knew the victims said the two men were from the village of Mankanou, five kilometres to the north, and were last seen the day before in the village of Sokoura under the guard of security forces.
According to witnesses, at around midday on 11 January, the two men were having lunch after repairing their motorbike in Sokoura when a convoy of about 15 military vehicles drove past on their way to a National Guard camp, located one kilometre south of the town. About half an hour later, two military vehicles returned to the same location and several soldiers got out.
A witness made the following statement:
Boukary and Mamadou panicked when the soldiers first passed by, but knowing them – they are not jihadists – I said they had nothing to fear. When the soldiers came back, Boukary started to run, climbing a big tree 40 metres away. The soldiers ran after him, opening fire towards the tree. Boukary fell, dead, like a bird. They threw the body into a military vehicle, blindfolded Mamadou and tied his hands, before making him get in and drive away. They did not ask Mamadou for anything, not even his identity papers. At around 3pm, I was called by a friend who said he heard gunshots near the military camp.
The two witnesses later described seeing the bodies just outside the National Guard camp. Human Rights Watch received a video of the bodies filmed by a local resident. It showed the bodies lying in a wooded area about four meters apart. Tyre tracks and boot prints are clearly visible in the sand. The hands of one man, identified by witnesses as Mamadou, were tied behind his back and his head was bloody and partly crushed. Slashes were visible elsewhere on the bodies of both victims.
Village of Libé, October 22, 2020
Human Rights Watch spoke with 10 villagers who were present during the attack on the village of Libé, in the Bankass Cercle, in which Malian security forces reportedly killed 25 villagers, burned down many houses and granaries, and looted livestock and valuables. « They killed people while they were running, » said one villager. « Some were executed at close range, others were run over by army vehicles, others were burned alive inside their houses.
The attack lasted from about noon to 2 p.m. A village elder provided Human Rights Watch with a list of the 25 victims, including three women and two children. Fourteen were over the age of 50. One child has yet to be found. A community leader said many of those killed were too sick, too old, or too young to flee.
A military analyst who investigated the Libé incident told Human Right Watch that « several security forces were involved in the operation, including the army, the national guard, and the air force. According to two community leaders, some members of the security forces treated villagers with respect and provided first aid to those who had been injured by others.
« It was as if different army corps had received different orders, » noted one elder. « One group spoke respectfully to the inhabitants, asking them about the presence of jihadists, and the other group came to kill. « Two villagers said they observed some members of an ethnic Dogon civil defence group working alongside the security forces, serving as guides.
A 40-year-old shepherd whose brother died in the attack said:
Shots first rang out on the eastern side of the village. As they intensified, I saw soldiers invading the village, some on foot, others in armoured vehicles and pick-up trucks. Bullets were flying everywhere. Panic took over the village; people were running in all directions. Thank God I escaped, but my brother did not survive.
An animal seller said:
I saw vehicles with machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks and soldiers firing Kalashnikovs [military assault rifles] indiscriminately. I didn’t see any armed jihadists or members of a civil defence group – it wasn’t a clash – it was our own army firing at us. I saw soldiers burning my house, I lost everything. I was lucky; my family and I are still alive. We thought that if they suspected us, they would search our houses and ask us about the jihadists, but instead they came and killed us.
A villager who had left Libé that morning for the nearby town of Baye said he saw 17 bodies after returning the next morning, including those of four men shot in the head. An elderly woman saw soldiers execute three of them:
I hid in the toilet as soldiers burst into a neighbour’s house. From there, another group of soldiers captured three men who had tried to flee. They [the soldiers] argued about whether to arrest or kill them. I fell to my knees, closed my eyes, covered my ears, waiting for my own death. Suddenly I heard, pam, pam! On one side, the FAMa were looting; on the other, they were executing people.
During the attack, soldiers gathered seven men from different parts of the village and took them to an abandoned shop on the outskirts of Libé. The soldiers blindfolded them and tied their hands with cloth, according to a witness. Six of the men, aged between 41 and 65, were then executed. A witness said:
‘The soldiers took the men into an abandoned shop, ordering them to go inside. Within minutes of bringing the last one in, they came out, and the man who had taken up position at the door opened fire on the men inside. After the soldiers left, I saw all the men lying in a growing pool of blood, their hands tied, their eyes blindfolded, bullet casings everywhere… not one of them was breathing. I didn’t hear the soldiers ask any questions before they opened fire… It happened so quickly.
Villagers said it took them several days to bury 24 bodies in October after the attack. « We buried four people who had been run over by a vehicle, » said one. « We saw heavy vehicle tracks all around them, their organs were scattered. «
« I personally helped bury the six men executed in the abandoned shop, and three others whose burnt bodies we found in houses, including a child; only bones and skulls remained. Every morning for four days we continued to find bodies. In total, we buried 24 people in 10 graves, » said another villager.
Another body in an advanced state of decomposition was found around 9 November. « The last victim we found in the forest had probably been shot, and bled to death while hiding, » said a villager. « With this body, the death toll has been raised to 25. »
Several villagers said the soldiers looted property from homes and shops. « They ransacked the village from top to bottom, taking away valuables, food from shops and livestock, » an elderly man said. « They loaded mattresses from my neighbour’s house into their vehicles, and from mine they stole sheets, plates and jewellery that I wore during my wedding, » added a woman. « They took my whole herd of goats with them, » lamented a shepherd.
A 60-year-old woman who was dragged out of her house by a soldier said: « He pushed me to the ground, put his foot on my neck, ripped off my earrings and silver bracelets, and stole money, cloth, bedspreads and my husband’s new boubou, which he had not even worn yet. «
The inhabitants also denounced the burning and destruction of the village. « They burned our houses, shops and motorbikes, and destroyed the well, » said one villager. « We are living on rubble. Our village was built centuries ago; it was destroyed in less than two hours. « An animal seller said, « The images of the discovery of the bodies fill our minds; our children can’t sleep… Fear reigns now. «
Several villagers acknowledged the presence of armed Islamists in and around Libé as the reason for the army’s operation, especially after the 13 October attack on the Sokoura military camp, not far from Libé, in which nine soldiers were killed. But the villagers condemned the inability of the security forces to distinguish between combatants and civilians. « Yes, there are jihadists in this area, but they are gathering in the forests, not inside the village, » commented a 40-year-old shopkeeper. « A professional army should take time to find out who is a jihadist and who is not, instead of opening fire on the whole village. «
On 28 October, a statement from the Malian Ministry of Defence and Veterans denounced accusations of the involvement of members of the FAMa in the Libé killings as « false declarations that only aim to tarnish the image of the Malian Armed Forces », while declaring that investigations would be carried out « to shed light on any cases of proven misconduct ». No one has yet been arrested for the killings.