Author: Humans Rights Watch
Publication Type: Report
Date of publication: 2020
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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 today. 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 reidents 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 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.”
Bodies Appear in Djibo
Residents of Djibo said they first started seeing bodies in the more rural, less inhabited parts of the town in November 2019. “Human remains are strewn all over the outer limits of Djibo town … along sides of road, near a pond, by the Djibo dam, near abandoned houses, under a bridge, and in the bush,” one man said.
“From November 2019, so many bodies started showing up,” another man said. “Five or six here, 10 or 16 there, along the three highways out of town … to the north, east, and south.”
Residents said the vast majority of the dead were ethnic Peuhl, identified as such by their clothing, features, and, in about 10 cases, by those who knew individual victims by name. The people interviewed were extremely anxious as they spoke with Human Rights Watch and said they feared reprisals from the security forces, who had been implicated in the extrajudicial killing of 31 men in Djibo in April, and other killings there, since 2017.
The residents did not believe the men were killed in a gun battle. “Yes, Djibo has been attacked and there are jihadists [armed Islamists] not so very far from Djibo,” said a resident who had observed several groups of bodies. “But on the days before seeing bodies, we weren’t aware of any clashes or battles between the jihadists and army in the middle or outskirts of Djibo. Word travels fast and we’d know if this were the case.”
Another resident, who said he frequently travels from Djibo, said: “Had there been clashes with the terrorists, the public transport would have stopped.… We never would have been able to travel.”
Nine people identified some of the dead by name, including family members, whom they had either witnessed being detained by the security forces or had been informed by someone else who had seen the men being detained. In each of these incidents, the body they identified had been found with numerous other victims. One man, for instance, recognized “a man named Tamboura from a village further south, who I’d seen arrested in the Djibo cattle market by soldiers some days earlier.” Another recognized a man who worked as a security guard and who had been arrested by soldiers days before his body was found. Others described seeing the bodies of men they had seen being arrested by the authorities at the market, the hospital, during a food distribution, or at the bus station.
Several residents said they believed many of the unidentified victims had been detained during army operations or were internally displaced villagers who in recent months had settled in and around Djibo after fleeing their home villages. “Djibo isn’t such a but town that we wouldn’t recognize people, which is why we think so many of the dead were displaced,” one resident said.
Many residents speculated that the army had arrested the displaced people for questioning, fearing infiltration by armed Islamist groups, which had attacked Djibo on several occasions. “The army has really hit the IDPs [internally displaced persons],” a resident said. “They’ve gone for them in the animal market, as they come in to Djibo to buy and sell. After so many major jihadist attacks in Mali and Burkina, they’re really afraid of infiltration.”
Apparent Extrajudicial Executions
Residents described seeing groups of bodies near their homes as they grazed their animals or as they walked or drove along the major roads leading out of Djibo.
Apparent Execution of Five Men on June 13, 2020
On June 14, several residents described seeing the bodies of five men scattered over a half a kilometer in two of Djibo’s southern neighborhoods, sectors 3 and 8. One of those found, 54-year-old Sadou Hamadoume Dicko, the local chief and municipal councilor of Gomdè Peulh village, had been seen arrested by soldiers the previous day. Residents could not identify the other four bodies.
A trader described the arrest of Dicko on June 13:
Being the chief, he’d just finished picking up sacks of rice and millet for his people, now in Djibo after fleeing their village, about 125 kilometers away. Mr. Dicko had in April 2018 been abducted and held for several days by the Jihadists but this time it was the army who took him. At around 11:30 a.m. four men in uniform on motorcycles surrounded him and about six others and took them into an unfinished building for interrogation. Eventually, the soldiers let the others go but left with Mr. Dicko.
Three residents said they heard gunshots on June 13 and found the bodies of the five men the next day. “The gunshots rang out around 8 p.m. and the next day, June 14, I was called to be told the chief was dead,” one resident said. “It was what we feared. His hands were bound tightly behind his back and he had been shot in the head and chest.”Said another: “The shots rand out a few hours after the 7 p.m. curfew[…]Later we saw one body to the north, near La Maison de la Femme [Women’s Center], another south near a large well, and three others next to an elevation of sand.” All of the men were buried later the same day.