Ethnic militias have killed over 200 civilians and burned dozens of villages in communal violence in central Mali during 2018, Human Rights Watch said in a report released Friday. Most victims have been ethnic Peuhl villagers targeted by Dogon and Bambara "self-defense groups" for their alleged support of Islamist armed groups linked to Al-Qaeda.
The 108-page report, "'We Used to Be Brothers': Self-Defense Group Abuses in Central Mali," documents communal attacks by armed groups against 42 villages and hamlets in Mopti region, particularly near the Burkina Faso border, and the town of Djenne, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The violence has led to widespread displacement, hunger, and looting of livestock, affecting civilians from various communities. President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita should ensure that Mali's security forces impartially protect all civilians at risk from attacks by militias and Islamist armed groups. Judicial authorities should investigate and prosecute groups responsible for abuses.
"Abusive militias in central Mali are committing murder and mayhem and leaving scores of dead in their wake," Corinne Dufka, Sahel director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report said Friday. "The pace and brutality of the violence is alarming, as is the government's failure to investigate and bring those responsible to justice."
The report is based on research trips to central Mali in February, May and July and phone interviews throughout 2018. Human Rights Watch interviewed 148 victims and witnesses, as well as leaders from the ethnic Peuhl, Dogon, and Bambara communities, and local government, security and justice officials, among others.
Since 2015, Islamist armed groups have progressively increased their presence in central Mali, executing scores of civilians and government officials and committing other abuses. Their presence, and recruitment of pastoralist Peuhl residents, has inflamed tensions with the Bambara and Dogon communities, and led to the formation of ethnic self-defense groups.
The self-defense groups say they took security into their own hands because the government had failed to adequately protect their villages and property. Easy access to firearms, including military assault weapons, has contributed to the groups' growth and militarization.
Witnesses described the killing of 156 Peuhl civilians by alleged Bambara and Dogon self-defense groups. These included 10 massacres in each of which up to 23 villagers were killed on the same day, most recently in late November. About 50 Peuhl villagers, including children, who were either detained by the militias or fled the attacks, remain missing. The worst militia atrocities have been sparked by the killing of a respected member of the Dogon or Bambara communities. In response, the militias engaged in retaliatory killings, often targeting an entire Peuhl hamlet.
A witness described one attack by Bambara militiamen, or Dozos: "I was in my house and started hearing motorcycles…then gunfire and the sound of women screaming. I hid with my family but could see from a window that the Dozos had come. … I saw them entering houses, one by one, and then shooting people as they ran away, and later stealing… I heard one of them saying in Bambara, 'Kill all the Peuhl…don't let anyone escape.'"
Witnesses said that Dozos dragged 11 men from the mosque in Dankoussa in early September and then executed them. Others described how militiamen killed 17 men in July and threw their bodies into the village well. An attack on the village of Komboko in September by Dogon militiamen killed 14 villagers, including elderly women and children who were burned in their homes.
Witnesses also said that Islamist armed groups, allegedly supported at times by Peuhl self-defense groups, killed 46 Dogon villagers. Witnesses described the killings of a Muslim teacher, and of villagers, including children, foraging for wood or bringing food aid; or burned alive when their villages came under attack. At least 10 Dogon villagers died in 2018 from improvised explosive devices that armed Islamists appear to have planted.
The Malian government has inadequately followed through with their March commitment to disarm the militias and prosecute anyone carrying unauthorized weapons and implicated in abuses. Leaders from all communities said the Malian security forces were often slow to respond and at times failed to protect them from attacks by armed Islamist groups and self-defense militias.
Peuhl villagers described seeing militiamen, some involved in killings, carrying weapons, including military assault weapons, or circulating freely just a few days after the killings with no apparent attempt by the security forces to disarm or detain them for questioning. In some cases, the names of the alleged perpetrators had been reported to the authorities.
Prior to publication of the report, Human Rights Watch shared the major findings and recommendations with the Malian government, which, in response, detailed measures being taken to address the communal violence. The measures included establishing 16 new security posts in vulnerable areas, confiscating over 360 weapons, and opening investigations into the violence. Officials said their ability to protect civilians was hampered by competing security priorities and a lack of resources.
The government, Human Rights Watch says, should more vigorously prosecute the killings, step up security force patrols to protect vulnerable populations, set up a hotline to report imminent attacks, and ensure that security forces respond to the violence quickly and impartially.
"The worsening violence in central Mali thrusts members of all ethnic groups into the dangerous cycle of violence and impunity," Dufka said. "The Malian government and its allies need to confront this insecurity head-on before more blood is shed."