Burkina Faso Accused of Massacring Civilians

He lay on top of his young sons, trying to shield them with his body, he said.

The military had forced them and dozens of other villagers under a baobab tree. Then, he said, the soldiers opened fire.

“They shot at us all,” said Daouda, a farmer who had survived for years in jihadist-controlled territory only to be shot at by the military that was supposed to protect him.

The mass killings in Daouda’s village and a nearby hamlet in February were among the deadliest in a decade of upheaval in Burkina Faso, a country torn apart by the Islamist insurgencies that have swept across parts of western Africa.

Burkina Faso has faced such relentless assaults from extremist groups affiliated with Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that it topped the Global Terrorism Index last year, becoming the nation hardest hit by terrorism in the world.

The resulting conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced more than two million in all — 10 percent of the country’s population.

But in the decade-long fight against the insurgents, Burkina Faso’s military has waged a brutal war of its own. It has been accused of repeatedly targeting civilians who are suspected of cooperating with — or simply living in the vicinity of — jihadists, according to survivors and human rights groups. Soldiers often kill civilians on the spot, they say.

Sometimes the killings come as revenge. Before the military descended on Daouda’s village, known as Soro, insurgents had attacked an outpost aligned with the government.

Soon after, soldiers showed up and summarily killed more than 223 people in Soro and another village nearby, Nondin, on Feb. 25, Human Rights Watch said last month. Dozens of women and 56 children were killed, it found.

The New York Times interviewed villagers and reviewed cellphone videos of the aftermath. The residents buried the corpses in eight mass graves, according to footage recorded days later in the emptied village. The Times verified that the videos had been taken in Soro, and confirmed the appearance of the apparent mass graves in satellite imagery taken two weeks later.

Burkina Faso’s government said it had opened an investigation into the killings, but did not concede that the military had committed them. To the contrary, it suspended the BBC, Voice of America and other international news outlets simply for reporting on the Human Rights Watch findings.

Even so, Burkina Faso’s security minister, Mahamoudou Sana, gave a vague but chilling statement the day after the killings in which he railed against anyone suspected of supporting insurgents, either in a “passive or active” way.

Most of the survivors have now fled Soro, including Daouda and his family, whose full names are being withheld for their safety. A villager who returned home after the killings took place confirmed the presence of dozens of male corpses around a baobab tree, along with the bodies of women and children in a courtyard.

The turmoil in Burkina Faso has fueled political instability as well, with mutinous soldiers twice citing the conflict as a rationale for seizing power by force in the past two and a half years.

Capt. Ibrahim Traoré, who staged the latest coup in 2022 and now rules the country, has been waging a full-blown war against Islamist militants. He has enrolled and armed more than 50,000 civilian militia fighters and urged citizens to turn in neighbors or others suspected of collaborating with extremists.

Those living in disputed areas, like the villages of Soro and Nondin, which were attacked on Feb. 25, have sometimes been caught in the crossfire.

Daouda said that, for years, insurgents affiliated with Al Qaeda had forced his village to live under an interpretation of Islamic law and pay a tax — mostly in the form of cattle heads — in exchange for supposed protection.

“Without the presence of the government, we were bound to accept the agreement or leave the village,” he said.

The militants also prohibited the men in Soro and Nondin from joining the ranks of the civilian militias fighting alongside Burkina Faso’s military, known as the Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland.

So instead of being protected by the military and the civilian militias, the men in the villages became targets.

“The military and the civilian militias have been casting a very wide net on people who are perceived as supporting jihadist groups, and executing them to try to squash the growth of these groups,” said Corinne Dufka, an analyst with years of experience in Burkina Faso.

Islamist militants have killed more civilians in Burkina Faso than the military or militias have by far. They have also killed scores of soldiers and cut access to food convoys and humanitarian aid.

But as the ranks of the civilian militias have swelled over the past 18 months, so have reports of mass killings. And the authorities in Burkina Faso have mostly ignored calls by the European Union, the United Nations and others to properly investigate them. They have muzzled local journalists, expelled foreign reporters and forcibly conscripted critics, including human rights activists. Reporters Without Borders has labeled Burkina Faso and other countries in the region led by military juntas as “no-news” zones.

Foreign diplomats have been targeted, too. Burkina Faso’s Foreign Ministry summoned the acting American ambassador this month after the United States and Britain said in a joint statement that they were “gravely concerned by reports of massacres of civilians.”

It is unclear whether Burkina Faso’s military has made significant gains in the war since Captain Traoré grabbed power in 2022. The government says it controls 70 percent of the country’s territory, but foreign diplomats and humanitarian workers estimate that Islamist militants have freedom of movement in 60 percent of the country.

The authorities did not respond to a request for comment. In April 2023, they acknowledged that men wearing military uniforms had killed scores of civilians in an attack. A prosecutor opened an investigation, but no conclusions have been made public so far.

Just before the soldiers reached the village of Soro on Feb. 25, jihadists had stormed an outpost of civilian militia fighters a few miles away, according to a report aired by Burkina Faso’s national television. It was one of many assaults across Burkina Faso that day.

“The soldiers asked us, ‘Where are they?’” recounted Daouda, guessing that the military was asking about Islamist militants.

A 32-year-old woman interviewed by Human Rights Watch described a soldier telling her, “Why didn’t you alert us of the arrival of the jihadists? You are terrorists!”

The soldiers rounded up the men and shot down those trying to flee, according to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch. They also corralled women and children in the courtyard of a house.

Under the baobab tree, Daouda said he tried to catch a glimpse of his wife, but the crowd was quickly obscured by a cloud of dust as men in uniform opened fire. Another soldier standing guard ordered him to lower his head, he said, so he lay down on his sons, aged 9 and 10.

Minutes later, the soldiers sprayed the men with bullets.

Daouda said he somehow emerged from the pile of bodies with no physical injuries, but his two sons were shot in their legs. He rushed to the courtyard to look for his wife, but most of the women in it were dead, he said. A few babies wrapped around their backs were crying. His wife was not there.

With the help of a neighbor, Daouda said he carried his two injured sons and eventually fled to a neighboring country. A day later, he found his wife there, too: Most of the villagers and others from surrounding hamlets had fled after the attack.

Daouda said he did not know whether he would ever go home.

The soldiers did not stop after the killings in Soro. They pressed forward a few miles to the village of Nondin, where dozens more people were killed, according to Human Rights Watch.

The grieving continues, with people still tending to mass graves, according to a video obtained by The Times. Engraved in fresh cement in Soro, at the site of some of the makeshift mass graves, a message paid homage to the victims of “the Feb. 25, 2024 massacre.”

“May their souls rest in peace,” it reads.

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