Burkina Faso: Islamic radicals kill 250 civilians; human rights group details attacks on Christians

Burkina Faso Christian Church at Tibin village near Ziniaré in the province of Oubritenga, Burkina Faso, on October 9, 2013.
Burkina Faso Christian Church at Tibin village near Ziniaré in the province of Oubritenga, Burkina Faso, on October 9, 2013. | Wikimedia Commons/Martin Grandjean

Islamic extremist groups in Burkina Faso killed at least 250 civilians since last April, according to a new report released by a human rights watchdog group that also sheds more details surrounding attacks against churches and worshiping Christians.

On Monday, the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch released a new report highlighting the escalation of extremism in the West African country in which one of the “fastest-growing displacement crises” on the continent is developing as hundreds of thousands fled for their lives last year. 

The report is based on interviews with dozens of victims and witnesses of abuses that took place between April and December of last year. The report documents at least 256 civilians murdered in 20 attacks since April 2019. 

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The al-Qaeda-aligned groups responsible for such attacks, HRW reports, formed in neighboring Mali and have since spread to Burkina Faso. Those groups include Ansaroul Islam and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara. 

The report detailed one attack on a Catholic Church that took place on May 12 in the town of Dablo located in the Centre-Nord region. Six people were said to have been killed, including the parish priest, Father Simeon Yampa.

One witness told HRW that the attack began about 15 minutes after the beginning of the 8:30 a.m. Sunday service. 

“[W]e heard the motorcycles … then saw them through the windows,” the witness said. “The church was so full that dozens of worshipers had to celebrate outside. One group of jihadists surrounded those outside then another entered the church, creating panic.”

Witnesses said the jihadis blocked the doors so no one could escape. 

“Father Yampa fled outside through his dressing chamber,” another witness was quoted as saying. “He ran about three meters, but a jihadist pointed his gun at him saying, ‘You will not escape.’ The priest turned around, raised his hands, clutching the Bible, and sunk to his knees. And the jihadist shot him in the chest, saying, ‘Allahu Akbar.’”

Inside the church, dozens of worshipers were trapped, witnesses said. The churchgoers were ordered to exit the church one-by-one and hand the extremists their identification cards and cellphones. 

Another witness said the extremists ordered churchgoers to “abandon Christianity.” After the executions, another witness said the extremists burned robes, church documents, Bibles, musical instruments and two cars.

“They ordered about 20 men to lie down outside, a few meters from the church, all face down in a row,” a witness was quoted as saying. “Then they started killing. I couldn’t look. … I just prayed. ... Then one of them received a phone call and the killing stopped.”

While Burkina Faso was formerly known as a somewhat peaceful country, attacks carried out by Islamic extremist groups have increased since 2016. Attacks on civilians and summary executions increased exponentially in 2019 as violence in the country has become one of the most disturbing global trends of the past year. 

Although attacks had been largely concentrated in Burkina Faso’s northern region, violence spread to other regions in 2019 since extremist groups are concentrating recruitment efforts on the nomadic Fulani herding communities, according to HRW.

Meanwhile, victims of attacks have largely been farming communities. 

Witnesses told HRW that assailants tried to justify the killings by associating the victims with the government, the West or Christianity. Witnesses said the victims were gunned down in marketplaces, in villages, at churches and mosques, and while on the way to displacement camps. 

Despite being blamed for the atrocities, HRW notes that Islamic extremist groups “have rarely claimed responsibility for attacks.”

“Armed Islamist groups in Burkina Faso have attacked civilians with unmitigated cruelty and utter disregard for human life,” HRW West Africa director Corinne Dufka said in a statement. “Deliberately targeting farmers, worshipers, mine workers, displaced people and traders are war crimes.” 

On May 13, 2019, extremists killed four Catholics as they participated in a Marian procession in the Bam province and burned their statue of Mary. 

“We were around 70 people accompanying the virgin from village to village when suddenly, I saw seven motorcycles with two heavily armed men on each come racing towards us,” a victim of the attack told HRW. 

“The virgin was in a motorized tricycle with about 10 people and the rest of us were walking. All who could, including me, scattered, but those in the tricycle didn’t have time. Some minutes later, I heard gunfire. Around 4 p.m., we returned and found the bodies of our four brothers, face down, about 40 meters from the path.” 

The HRW report also documents another church attack that took place in Silgadji village after service on April 28. A pastor and five congregants of an Assemblies of God congregation were killed in the attack.

“As the service ended, I saw around 20 armed men surrounding the church as the women prepared lunch,” a witness told HRW. “Twenty others blocked the paths out of the village. One jihadist took out a list of people they said were working with the Kogloweago [a local defense group], calling out the names, which included the elderly Pastor Pierre Ouédraogo and his son.”

“They ordered them to lie face down, then a jihadist shot them ... two times each in the head,” the witnessed continued. “People were horrified. ... The victims were all [ethnic] Mossi. Then they took the food that had been prepared, put it in the tricycle belonging to one of the men executed, and left.”

Suspected Islamic extremists attacked a Protestant church in the Est region on Dec. 1, 2019. A total of 14 were killed, including pastor Woba Noé and a 12-year-old boy. 

“The women wailed in grief,” one witness told HRW. “My cousin was among the dead. The jihadists took the men’s [identity cards] and, from my cousin, they also took his Bible.”

The HRW report also documented the killing of 35 civilians in Arbinda in December as well as an attack on Dolmane mine workers in November.

Last September, 19 civilians were killed during an attack on a convoy of motorized tricycles bringing humanitarian aid from Dablo to Kelbo. 

Last October, 23 were killed in an attack on an artisanal goldmine in the Sahel region. In the same month, 13 were killed in Pobe Mengao village after being accused of collaborating with government forces. 

On Oct. 11, at least 14 men were executed as they left a village mosque in the Salmossi village. 

In July, 22 people were reportedly killed in an attack on Dibilou village, HRW reports. 

“The Islamist armed groups need to immediately end their attacks on civilians,” Dufka said in a statement. “At the same time, the Burkina Faso government should take stronger steps to protect vulnerable communities from harm and impartially investigate and appropriately prosecute those implicated in war crimes.”

Kristen Knutson, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, believes that the scale of the humanitarian crisis in Burkina Faso will likely increase in 2020. 

“The situation is really unprecedented for Burkina Faso,” she told The New Humanitarian. “The impact on the affected population has been quite severe, and the number of people in need of assistance has grown rapidly over the course of the year."

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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