Burkina Faso military executes 223 civilians, including 56 children, says Human Rights Watch 

The Burkina Faso military summarily executed at least 223 civilians, including at least 56 children, in two villages on February 25, 2024, Human Rights Watch said.

These mass killings, among the worst army abuse in Burkina Faso since 2015, appear to be part of a widespread military campaign against civilians accused of collaborating with Islamist armed groups, and may amount to crimes against humanity. Soldiers killed 44 people, including 20 children, in Nondin village, and 179 people, including 36 children, in the nearby Soro village of Thiou district in the northern Yatenga province.
Burkina Faso military executes 223 civilians. Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

These mass killings, among the worst army abuse in Burkina Faso since 2015, appear to be part of a widespread military campaign against civilians accused of collaborating with Islamist armed groups, and may amount to crimes against humanity. Soldiers killed 44 people, including 20 children, in Nondin village, and 179 people, including 36 children, in the nearby Soro village of Thiou district in the northern Yatenga province.

Burkinabè authorities should urgently undertake a thorough investigation into the massacres, with support from the African Union and the United Nations to protect its independence and impartiality.

“The massacres in Nondin and Soro villages are just the latest mass killings of civilians by the Burkina Faso military in their counterinsurgency operations,” said Tirana Hassan, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “The repeated failure of the Burkinabè authorities to prevent and investigate such atrocities underlines why international assistance is critical to support a credible investigation into possible crimes against humanity.”

From February 28 to March 31, Human Rights Watch interviewed 23 people by telephone, including 14 witnesses to the killings, three local civil society activists, and three members of international organizations. Human Rights Watch verified videos and photographs shared by survivors of the aftermath of the killings and injured survivors.

On February 24 and 25, Islamist armed groups carried out several attacks across the country on military targets, including barracks and bases, and on civilian infrastructure, such as religious sites, killing scores of civilians, soldiers, and militia members. Burkinabè Defense Minister Mahamoudou Sana, in a February 26 statement to the media, denounced what he described as “simultaneous and coordinated” attacks by Islamist fighters, but made no mention of the mass killings of civilians in Nondin and Soro.

On March 1, Aly Benjamin Coulibaly, prosecutor of the high court in Ouahigouya said in a statement that he received reports of “massive deadly attacks” on the villages of Komsilga, Nodin and Soro in Yatenga province on February 25, with a provisional toll of “around 170 people executed”, and others injured, and that he ordered an investigation. On March 4, Coulibaly said that he had visited the sites of the incidents along with the judicial police on February 29, but indicated that he was not able to locate the dozens of bodies he had been told were there.

Villagers said that on February 25, military forces first stopped in Nondin, then in Soro, five kilometers away. They believe that the killings were perpetrated in retaliation for an attack by Islamist fighters against a Burkinabè military and militia camp outside the provincial capital, Ouahigouya, about 25 kilometers from Nondin, earlier that day. “Before the soldiers started shooting at us, they accused us of being complicit with the jihadists [Islamist fighters],” said a 32-year-old woman survivor from Soro who was shot in the leg. “They said we do not cooperate with them [the army] because we did not inform them about the jihadists’ movements.”

On February 25, the Radiodiffusion Télévision du Burkina (RTB), the government-run national television network, reported “a major attack” by Islamist fighters around 7 am “against the mixed battalion” military base in Ouahigouya. It said that soldiers of the Rapid Intervention Battalion (Batallion d’Intervention Rapide, BIR), a special forces unit involved in counterinsurgency operations, “chased the fighters fleeing towards Thiou” and “neutralized the maximum of those who could not” flee. The report, which made no reference to civilian casualties, stated that soldiers requested that aerial drones do not follow the fighters they were chasing, and to “leave this group to them,” perhaps indicating that they did not want the drones to record what followed.

Witnesses said that between 8:30 and 9 am, about 30 minutes after a group of armed Islamist fighters passed near the village yelling “Allah Akbar!” (God is great), a military convoy with over 100 Burkinabè soldiers arrived on motorbikes, in pickup trucks, and in at least two armored cars in Nondin’s Basseré neighborhood located near the asphalted National Road 2. They said the soldiers went door-to-door, ordering people out of their homes and to show their identity cards. They then rounded up villagers in groups before opening fire on them. Soldiers also shot at people trying to flee or hide.

Villagers described a similar scenario in Soro, where soldiers arrived about an hour later and shot people who had been rounded up or who tried to hide or escape. “They separated men and women in groups,” said a 48-year-old farmer. “I was in the garden with other people when they [soldiers] called us. As we started moving forward, they opened fire on us indiscriminately. I ran behind a tree, and this saved my life.”

Human Rights Watch obtained two lists of the victims’ names compiled by survivors and others who helped bury the bodies. Witnesses said that survivors and people from nearby villages buried the bodies in Nondin in three mass graves and those in Soro in eight. Some bodies in both villages, they said, were buried individually since they were recovered days later in the bush.

On February 26, a group of family members of victims from Nondin and Soro went to the gendarmerie brigade in Ouahigouya to make a statement, leading the high court prosecutor to announce an investigation.

On March 21, following a brief visit to Burkina Faso, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Volker Türk, said in a statement that he received “assurances” from the Burkinabè president “that steps are being taken to ensure” that the conduct of security forces “fully complies with international humanitarian and international human rights laws … against the backdrop of reports of serious violations by security forces … which need to be thoroughly investigated and acted upon.”

Human Rights Watch has previously documented serious abuses by the Burkinabè army during counterterrorism operations, including summary executions and enforced disappearances as well as indiscriminate drone strikes.

All parties to the armed conflict in Burkina Faso are bound by international humanitarian law, which includes Common Article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and customary international law. Common Article 3 prohibits murder, torture, and ill-treatment of civilians and captured fighters. Individuals who commit serious violations of the laws of war with criminal intent are responsible for war crimes. Commanders who knew or should have known about serious abuses by their forces and did not take appropriate action may be prosecuted as a matter of command responsibility.

Burkina Faso is a state party to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provide for the right to life and prohibit extrajudicial executions. Burkina Faso in 2004 ratified the Rome Statute creating the International Criminal Court.

Crimes against humanity are a series of offenses, including murder, that are knowingly committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population. “Widespread” refers to the scale of the acts or number of victims. A “systematic” attack indicates a pattern or methodical plan.

The Burkina Faso government has an obligation to exercise criminal jurisdiction over those who carry out grave international crimes. War crimes and crimes against humanity are crimes of universal jurisdiction, which allows other countries to prosecute them regardless of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of victims and perpetrators.

“The Burkinabé army has repeatedly committed mass atrocities against civilians in the name of fighting terrorism with almost no one held to account,” Hassan said. “Victims, survivors and their families are entitled to see those responsible for grave abuses brought to justice. Support from AU or UN investigators and legal experts is the best way to ensure credible investigations and fair trials.”

Armed Conflict in Burkina Faso

Burkina Faso forces have been fighting an insurgency by the Al-Qaeda-linked Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimeen, JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) since the armed groups entered the country from Mali in 2016. The two armed groups control large swathes of territory, attacking civilians as well as government security forces.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a disaggregated data collection, analysis, and crisis mapping project, recorded violent events linked to this conflict that resulted in the deaths of more than 8,000 people in 2023 and over 430 in January 2024 alone.

On November 26, 2023, the JNIM attacked military barracks in the besieged northern town of Djibo, Sahel region, and broke into homes and a camp for internally displaced people, killing at least 40 civilians. On February 25, the ISGS claimed responsibility for an attack on a church in the town of Essakane, Sahel region, that killed 15 civilians.

Islamist armed groups have also besieged cities, towns, and villages across Burkina Faso, blocking food, other necessities, and humanitarian aid to the civilian population and causing starvation and illness among residents and displaced people, violations of international humanitarian law that amount to war crimes.

Since 2022, Burkina Faso has experienced two military coups. The military authorities have relied heavily on militias to counter attacks from Islamist armed groups. In October 2022, the government began a campaign to bolster these militias by recruiting 50,000 civilian auxiliaries, called Volunteers for the Defense of the Homeland (Volontaires pour la défense de la patrie, VDPs).

Since the fighting expanded, the military has been linked to mass killings of civilians for which no one has been held accountable. On April 20, 2023, soldiers killed 83 men, 28 women, and 45 children, burned homes, and looted property in and near the village of Karma, in Yatenga province. The authorities announced an investigation but have not followed up.

On November 12, the European Union called for an investigation into a massacre in the Centre Nord region in which about 100 people were reportedly killed. The government said that on November 5, unidentified gunmen killed at least 70 people, mainly older people and children, in Zaongo village, and that the incident was being investigated. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any progress in the investigation. Human Rights Watch spoke to witnesses who said the army was responsible for the massacre in Zaongo, which international media corroborated.

On December 19, 2023, media reported that hundreds of civilians were killed in several villages around the town of Djibo, Sahel region. The authorities said that Islamist armed groups were responsible, but local sources, including some who spoke to Human Rights Watch, pointed to responsibility by the army.

The conflict has forced two million people from their homes and led to the shutdown of over 6,100 schools since 2021.

In September 2023, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Niger created a mutual defense pact, the Alliance of Sahel States, and, in January, the three countries decided to withdraw from the Economic Community of West African (ECOWAS) regional bloc. On March 6, the army chiefs of the three countries announced the creation of a joint force to fight Islamist armed groups.

A Retaliatory Attack

Nondin and Soro are among the many villages within Thiou district that the JNIM has besieged. On February 25, JNIM fighters attacked a government militia base next to a military camp in Ouahigouya, killing and injuring several militiamen.

Witnesses and residents believe the killings were perpetrated in retaliation for allegedly collaborating with the Islamist armed groups.