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It is a report that embarrasses the Malian army and authorities. Tuesday, April 20, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has launched a new series of accusations targeting Malian soldiers who, since the start of the war in 2012, have been regularly implicated but rarely punished. According to the report of the human rights NGO, soldiers killed at least 34 villagers and made at least 16 others disappear during counterterrorism operations carried out between October and March in the region of Mopti.
In recent years, central Mali has become the epicenter of insecurity in this Sahelian country which sees the jihadists extending their grip and descending towards the south. Faced with them, the Malian army lacks everything (money, equipment, training), suffers increasingly heavy losses and is unable to garner real victories on the ground. In this context, the atrocities by soldiers against civilians are increasing. Between 2017 and 2020, 535 civilians were reportedly killed in Mali by the security forces, according to the NGO Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (Acled). The testimonies of citizens accumulate and are chilling.
“The soldiers brought the men into an abandoned store … [militaire] who had taken up a position at the entrance opened fire. They were lying there, dying in a bloodbath ”, a resident of Libé told HRW. On October 22, this village in the circle of Bankass would have become the target of its own army, then in an anti-terrorist operation. “They killed people while they were running. Some were executed at close range, others run over by army vehicles, others burned alive inside their homes ”, says a witness cited in the report. Survivors say they buried 24 people in ten graves. Among them, three women and two children.
When the case was publicly denounced, the authorities protested against this “Propaganda”, “terrorist trademark” “whose sole objective is to want to undermine the morale of the FAMA [forces armées maliennes] “, according to an army statement published in October and which promised to prosecute the perpetrators of these “False allegations”. The authorities have since revised their copy, leaving more room for doubt. “The judgments rendered will make it possible to say whether there has been a mistake”, underlines Colonel Souleymane Dembélé, director of information and public relations for the armed forces. According to him, legal proceedings have been opened and soldiers have been heard.
On the ground, investigations carried out by the gendarmerie are said to be underway for the seven cases of alleged abuses denounced by the HRW report. But in Libé, family members of the victims said they had not yet been contacted.
For Corinne Dufka, HRW director for the Sahel, “Promising to investigate the abuses is a positive step, but the Malian government has failed to keep many previous commitments of this type.” Between 2016 and 2018, the authorities (overthrown by a coup in August 2020) announced the opening of seven investigations targeting members of the defense and security forces accused of killing more than 100 civilians. But the findings of only one of them had been made public. It concerned the discovery of a mass grave containing seven bodies in Sokolo (center). Soldiers had been charged. Briefly, the government then concluded that the seven men buried had been killed “During the fighting in the region”.
In central Mali, jihadists, especially affiliated with the katiba of Fulani preacher Amadou Koufa, one of the leaders of the Support Group for Islam and Muslims (GSIM), are killing more and more soldiers – around sixty between October and April, according to Acled. The alleged abuses by the security forces continued. According to the same source, around fifty citizens were killed in the region by soldiers who were supposed to protect them from an enemy who is held responsible for the deaths of 90 civilians between October and April.
Over the course of the atrocities, the villagers lose what little confidence they had in a State with little presence and considered more predatory than protective. “Abuses and impunity are pushing more and more Malians into the arms of the jihadists. This is one of the main arguments they use to recruit ”, underlines Corinne Dufka.
In the village of Sokoura, on January 11, Boukary and Mamadou reportedly panicked when they saw a military convoy pass. “Boukary started to run, climbing a large tree. The soldiers ran after him, opening fire. Boukary fell, dead, like a bird ”, says a witness interviewed by HRW. His body was reportedly thrown into a military vehicle. Mamadou was reportedly taken on board by the soldiers. Two witnesses then said they saw their bodies outside the National Guard camp. “The hands of a man, identified by witnesses as being Mamadou, were tied behind his back and his head was bloody and partly crushed”, says the report.
On March 18, a convoy of soldiers fell victim to an improvised explosive device in Boni. One more in an area increasingly mined by an almost invisible enemy. Appraisal: one dead and one injured. Driving behind them, Boucary and Salmane were ordered to stop. They would have been “Executed at close range” by soldiers, without being asked questions – they were presumed guilty. Family members of the two thirties, who arrived at the bodies to bury them, claim to have been “Beaten up” by soldiers and stripped. “They stole our phones, eight motorcycles and money”, recounted one of them.
“The perpetrators of such violations of the laws of war can be prosecuted for war crimes”, underlines the report. In June 2020, the international commission of inquiry for Mali, established in 2018 by the UN, estimated that it had collected “Reasonable grounds to believe” that the army had “Committed war crimes” between 2012 and 2018. In its 350-page report, the methods described (torture, enforced disappearances, summary executions) are the same as those detailed in HRW’s report.
“In Mali, most terrorists are not foreigners. These are Malians whom the army meets every day. It makes it difficult for the soldiers to distinguish the terrorist from the one who is not. In the morning, some are jihadists and attack the FAMA, in the evening they turn into ordinary citizens and go back to sleep peacefully in the village. It creates amalgams ”, recognizes Colonel Dembélé.
At least ten legal proceedings have been launched since the beginning of the year by military justice, according to the latest UN report on the situation in Mali. Some officers, non-commissioned officers and non-commissioned members are awaiting their judgment behind bars, according to the communication directorate of the army. But for the time being, the only judgments handed down by the military court set up in 2020 concern tort cases.