(Bamako) – 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...[L]ater 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.
Apparent Execution of 18 Men, May 13 and 19, 2020
Residents described seeing the security forces arrest 17 men near a Djibo market on May 13. The bodies of the 17 were found the next day along a path going through sector 5, also known as Mbodowol. The men had been shot in the head, according to the residents. Another man, with a mental disability, was found around the same place after having been arrested on May 19. At writing, the bodies had not yet been buried.
Said one resident:
I was in the market, when at around 10 a.m. I saw two vehicles with about 10 soldiers drive up. I don’t know if they were gendarmes or army. I was too afraid to stare at them, but I saw they were in uniform, with helmets and vests and all held semi-automatic weapons. The 17 men had come from other villages to buy and sell that day. I recognized many of them, who worked as blacksmiths.
A sector 5 resident who heard gunshots on May 13 and saw the bodies a day later near the Djibo airfield said:
They were killed as darkness fell. I saw a vehicle from afar, coming from the direction of town. Sometime later we heard shots. Around 15 minutes later the same vehicle returned, this time with the headlamps on. On Thursday, May 14, around 9 a.m. we discovered the bodies – eight on one side close together … their faces covered with their shirts – and around 20 meters away, nine more bodies. They’d been shot in the head. You could see this clearly…and there were bullet casings on the ground. The men looked to be from 25 to 45 [years old.] The body of another man was found in the same place a few days later. That one, I’d seen arrested…he lives near me. He is not normal [has a mental disability] … He was picked up outside his house listening to his radio. There is a curfew and only the army can drive around at night like this.
Apparent Execution of 18 Men, March 17, 2020
Residents said that on March 18, they saw 18 bodies about 500 to 700 meters east of Djibo. The bodies were found near several large publicity signs that line the Djibo-Tongomayel road.
A man who feared his brother was among the dead explained why he believed government security forces were responsible for killing the 18 men:
On March 17, around 7 a.m., I got a frantic call from the bus station saying my brother and another man had just been arrested by gendarmes as they boarded a bus to Ouagadougou [the capital]. Later that night, around 9 p.m. I heard many gunshots, and thought, oh God, my brother is dead.
Just after dawn, I went in the direction of the shots and found 18 bodies. Their hands were tied, and they were blindfolded, each shot in the forehead. The blood flowed like a pond. The bodies were all together in a pile. I looked for my brother among the corpses … moving them enough to see if he was there. But he wasn’t. Among the dead, I recognized six men … they’d all been arrested by the FDS [Defense and Security Forces]. One was [name withheld] who had recently had a foot operation and had been arrested in front of many people near the hospital. I recognized his boubou [wide-sleeved robe]; his foot was still bandaged. Five others were traders I myself had seen arrested by the FDS on market day a week prior. As for my brother, he is still missing, even today.
Apparent Execution of 9 Men, January 15, 2020
A man who saw nine bodies on the road going east to Tongomayal, including a close relative, on January 16, said:
I discovered the bodies of nine people some meters off the road, one of whom was my 23-year-old nephew. They’d been arrested the day before. A friend called around 11 a.m. saying there was trouble in the market, that my boy had been arrested. I went to the market immediately and saw all nine, tied up and face down on the ground. Four gendarmes led them into their vehicle and took them away. That night around 8 p.m. I heard shots near the Djibo dam, and in the morning saw them in the bush, hands tied, riddled with bullets … Eight were Peuhl and one was a Bellah. We were too afraid to even bury them … we had to watch my nephew turn into a skeleton. He was not laid to rest until the mass burial in March, with dozens of others, but it was hardly a funeral and my boy was not a jihadist.
Bodies Found Near Djibo’s Sector 4, November 2019 and January 2020
Five residents of Djibo’s Sector 4 (also known as Wourossaba and Boguelsawa), south of the town, described seeing three groups of bodies within what they said was a one kilometer radius: a group of 8 bodies and a group of at least 16 bodies in November 2019, and a group of between 16 and 19 bodies around January 8, 2020. The total number of bodies seen largely corresponds to the 43 bodies buried in this sector during the mass burial on March 8 and 9.
A resident of Sector 4 described the three groups of bodies:
Many didn’t have shirts, and most were tied — some their eyes, others by the wrist, and they’d been shot. I knew none of them but believe all 43 were prisoners because all three times, I’d heard vehicles coming from the direction of town and saw the headlights … and heard gunshots. It was too far and too dark to see their uniforms but there wasn’t a battle and the jihadists can’t be driving around in a heavy truck that close to Djibo.
Another resident of Sector 4 described seeing 19 bodies around January 8:
I saw them around 7 a.m., 19 bodies in a line – all men, save one around 15 years old. The night before, I’d seen lights of a vehicle – it was around 8 p.m. and we were under curfew. Then I heard the shots. The bodies were about one kilometer south of Djibo, and 150 meters west from the highway – many bound at the arms, and with their eyes blindfolded. They’d been shot in the head, others in the chest, others the stomach. We didn’t know any of them, so they just stayed there until the March burial, by that time they were almost skeletons.
A health worker said that in February on the way to Ouagadougou she saw five bodies from her bus window, about 15 kilometers south of Djibo, near the village of Mentao: “They were 20 meters from the road – the bodies smelled – it seemed they’d been there for a week or so. By their dress, all the men appeared to be Peuhl. When I returned a week later, they were still there.” These bodies were not buried during the March mass burial.
Burials in March and April 2020
Djibo residents described an organized mass burial on March 8 and 9 during which at least 114 bodies were collected and buried in 14 common graves.
Residents who attended the burials said the bodies were in various stages of decomposition. “Some had just been killed, others had started to decompose, and many others were skeletons,” one said.
“Given how long the bodies had been outside, notably under the hot sun, many were only identifiable by their clothing,” said another.
Several residents said the dead were left unburied both because the families were either not from Djibo or because they were too frightened to claim the body. “Fear stopped people from burying the dead,” a village elder said. “You need permission from the security forces to bury a body and given the level of tension in Djibo these days, people are just too terrified that if they claim the body of a man accused of being a terrorist, they too will be taken and end up dead.” Many residents described the burials as “a delicate subject” which was not covered by local media. “Fear has kept us from talking much about the mass burials,” a village leader said.
“The bodies were scattered along and not far from the major roads leading to and from Djibo,” a resident said. “The first day, we worked from 9 a.m. to noon and buried 42 bodies to the south, along the Djibo-Ouagagdougou road. On the second day it was worse … working from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. we buried 72 people, 20 to the north and 52 to the east, along the Djibo-Dori road. Some people gathered the bodies while others dug the graves. The dead were buried in 14 common graves with from 3, 6, 7, up to 23 bodies.”
They said Djibo residents had obtained permission from both the civilian and military authorities based in Djibo to bury the dead largely because of the potential health and sanitation risk. “We were fearful of epidemics, especially as we approach the rainy season,” a community leader said. “We were overwhelmed seeing the bodies of lifeless people and so we organized ourselves and asked the authorities for permission to bury the dead,” said another.
Other residents spoke of the mental health impact on the town. “We organized the burial on health grounds but also because of the psychological impact on people, especially children, having to walk by the bodies every day on their way to market or school,” one resident said.
A herder said: “Imagine what it’s like to see these bodies every day, some eaten by dogs and vultures. It’s not easy living with that terrible reality day after day.”
Those who observed the mass burials said they were attended by the civilian authorities, who they said helped organize the funeral; the health authorities, who provided masks and sanitizer; and the security forces, which provided security. They said they were “strictly forbidden” from taking photographs of the burials. “No one would dare do that because the FDS was watching,” a resident said.
A resident who was at the burial said:
After getting authorization – from the army – and after involving health officers – we spent two days burying the dead who were in groups of 5, 7, 9, 20 – scattered all over. I didn’t recognize any of them, but several of those watching the burial later told me they’d recognized their father, brother, or son … that he’d been missing since being arrested by the soldiers in Djibo or in their village – weeks or months earlier. They didn’t say anything during the burial though … out of fear that they too would be arrested.
A man who buried 13 of the bodies found in north Djibo, including a family member whom he had last seen in the custody of the security forces in January, said “The road to Tongomayel was full of corpses and remains. Honestly, many were only skeletons … and their bodies had been scattered by animals. We were divided in groups, and went about looking for ribs, body parts.”
Two people described the burial in early April of the 18 men whose bodies were found on the road to Tongomayel around March 18. The bodies appeared after the security services had allegedly arrested the men. “We dug a large hole, big enough for all of them, and put sand and branches on top of it,” one man said. “The road to Tongomayel is full of bodies … the 52 buried during the mass burial, the 18 from mid-March, and it hasn’t stopped.”
Bodies Found, Left Unburied
Three residents described seeing 20 bodies that they said had been left in mid-March about 100 meters from the cemetery in Boguelsawa neighborhood, several kilometers south of Djibo.“Just days after we buried over 100 bodies, we woke up to find another 20 bodies,” a resident said. “It’s like, whoever is doing the killing is mocking us.” They told Human Rights Watch on June 14 that the bodies, now scattered and decomposed, have yet to be buried. “With death all around, we feel like tomorrow could be my turn to die,” a resident wrote.
Another man said that on June 1, “My nephew came across three dead while gathering wood north of Djibo, including two [ethnic] Bellahs we know well. He was so frightened he ran straight home without the wood.” As of June 30, the 18 dead found near the airport in mid-May had similarly yet to be buried.
Residents who spoke with Human Rights Watch were unaware of any judicial investigations into the apparent killings. Some killings allegedly implicating the security forces had occurred after the government’s pledge to fully investigate the apparent execution of 31 men detained by the security forces on April 9, 2020.
Human Rights Watch urges the Burkina Faso authorities to:
- Promptly and impartially investigate the killings in Djibo since November 2019, and fairly and appropriately prosecute all those responsible for extrajudicial killings and other crimes, including as a matter of command responsibility. Ensure the findings are made public.
- Send the commanders of the two security force bases in Djibo– the gendarmerie and army – on administrative leave, pending outcome of the investigation.
- Invite United Nations or other neutral international forensic experts, including those with experience working before criminal tribunals, to help preserve and analyze evidence in common graves. Exhumations without forensic experts can destroy critical evidence and greatly compromise the identification of bodies.
- Return remains of individuals found to be buried in graves or left unburied to their family members.