Tragedy: uniformed men massacre 150 villagers.

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Pressure is mounting on the authorities in Burkina Faso after more than 150 civilians were massacred by uniformed men in northern villages. At a press conference on Saturday, a correspondent spoke to a representative for the victims, who reiterated accusations against members of the defence and security forces.

Food is distributed to victims and survivors of the Karma massacre and neighbouring villages on April 29, 2023 in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso.
Food is distributed to victims and survivors of the Karma massacre and neighbouring villages in Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso. © Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatisation of Communities (CISC)

A woman was shot three times as she tried to escape, collapsing at the entrance to her village. Left for dead by her attackers, she was eventually spotted by a motorbike taxi driver and taken to hospital. She was one of the few survivors of the massacre in Karma, in northern Burkina Faso.

Several victims shared similar stories at a press conference on April 29 in the nearby town of Ouahigouya. Spokesman for the survivors Daouda Belem, who lost his brother in the attack, condemned an act of “unjust barbarity” and demanded that the “perpetrators, sponsors and accomplices” be prosecuted.

Men in military uniforms killed more than 130 people in the village of Karma in Yatenga province on April 20. The murderous raids then continued in several surrounding villages, claiming more victims.

Photos taken in Karma reveal the scale of the horror: dozens of bodies of men, women and children lie on the ground, sometimes in front of bullet-riddled walls.

Civilians executed in the village of Karma, Burkina Faso on April 20, 2023.
Civilians executed in the village of Karma, Burkina Faso. Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatisation of Communities (CISC)

Following the massacre, the government issued a statement condemning these “despicable and barbaric acts” and opened an investigation.

But the survivors of the attack have denounced the army’s retaliatory operation against the villagers, whom the military has accused of supporting terrorists in a region plagued by growing insecurity.

Burkina Faso’s military has been struggling against an insurgency by groups affiliated with the Islamic State group and al Qaeda, and attacks by armed groups on civilians have surged in the past year. More details below:

Rising death toll

In the late afternoon of April 20, survivors carrying wounded people arrived at the hospital in the regional capital Ouahigouya, about 15km from Karma, and recounted the tragic events of that day. Early in the morning, a large group of men wearing army uniforms – who had arrived in pickup trucks, motorbikes and armoured vehicles – entered the village and fired shots, causing panic. They then rounded up residents in groups across the village and executed them before leaving the area at around 2pm.

“We were able to obtain these testimonies by interviewing direct sources, including survivors, the injured and people close to the victims. In fact, the soldiers eventually spared a group of 19 villagers who had witnessed the executions. A dozen victims who were left for dead also survived and were taken to the hospital in Ouahigouya,” said Dr Daouda Diallo, secretary-general of the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatisation of Communities (CISC).

For more than a week, this Burkinabe human rights organisation has been conducting investigations to document the massacre and providing support to the victims, who have taken refuge in Ouahigouya.

“The army had cordoned off the roads, blocking access, until April 24. It was only after that date that some people were able to return to Karma and the surrounding villages, where the violence had taken place, to identify the victims and help the families bury their loved ones,” said Diallo.

The CISC published a first communiqué on April 27, stating that 136 bodies had been found in Karma, including “50 women and 21 children, among them babies under 30 days old killed on their mothers’ backs”.

Since then, the death toll has continued to rise. More than 150 deaths have now been recorded in this locality as well as in the neighbouring villages of Dinguiri, Ramdolah, Kerga and Mene.

A UN statement on the events of April 20 said the attackers were “allegedly members of the defence and security forces accompanied by paramilitary auxiliaries known as Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDP)”.

A young survivor of the Karma massacre with her mother, a refugee in the town of Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso, on April 29, 2023.
A young survivor of the Karma massacre with her mother, a refugee in the town of Ouahigouya, Burkina Faso.

Rapid intervention forces singled out

Alerted by the Ouahigouya gendarmerie on April 21, the local prosecutor announced two days later that an investigation had been opened and launched an appeal for witnesses. The transitional government said on April 27 that it was “particularly concerned by reports of killings” by “armed men dressed in Burkinabe military uniforms”. A government spokesman offered his condolences to the families, but said the circumstances of the deaths were still “unclear”.

The CISC, however, feels the testimonies of the victims – who insist that members of the Security and Defense Forces (SDF) were responsible for the killings – have been clear.

“Only soldiers are capable of deploying such logistics with battle tanks,” said Diallo. “Moreover, witnesses formally attested that these are members of a Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR). Some were able to spot the inscription ‘BIR 3’ on their uniforms, which identifies the force’s third unit,” he adds.

Six BIR units were created in November 2022 by Captain Ibrahim Traoré, the leader of Burkina Faso’s September 2022 coup and now president of the transitional government. Integrated into the armed forces and stationed in the capital, Ouagadougou, they are tasked with operating throughout the territory, prioritizing mobility and firepower.

According to several witnesses, the soldiers in Karma claimed the village was a corridor for armed groups, that the inhabitants were “all accomplices” and that they would be “treated as such”.

A week earlier, unidentified gunmen had killed six soldiers and 34 members of the Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland, civilian auxiliaries to the army, in an attack near Aorema, about 40km from Karma.

Growing indignation

As the death toll continues to rise, many are calling for action against those behind the Karma massacre, now considered the deadliest in the country since Burkina Faso’s terrorist insurgency began in 2015.

“Those responsible for these killings will be identified and tried by the International Criminal Court,” said Umaro Sissoco Embalo, president of Guinea-Bissau and chairman of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Speaking on behalf of ECOWAS, Sissoco Embaló described the events as “genocide” in a tweet.

Anger is growing in Burkina Faso, where criticism is now being levelled at the authorities, who are accused of turning a deaf ear.

“In the face of these almost unprecedentedly serious events […], the government’s response was to ignore the problem,” said civil society movement Le Balai Citoyen (The Citizen Broom) in a statement on Friday. “The government suggests it is not sure whether these killings took place. Therefore, its own sources are not certain about what happened in Karma,” it said, stressing the importance of “delivering justice to the Burkinabe victims of this massacre”.

Belem, the victims’ spokesman, also blasted the government’s reaction.

“The government’s response borders on indifference and contempt for the people of Karma and the surrounding villages. Worse, it sows confusion about the responsibility of the SDF for this massacre. We, the people and survivors of the events, have no doubt” they took place, he said at the press conference.

A government spokesman did not respond to FRANCE 24’s requests for an interview.

The accusations against Burkina Faso’s military come at a very bad time for the authorities, who are trying their best to contain an advance by armed insurgent groups. After launching a massive VDP recruitment campaign, Burkina Faso declared a “general mobilisation” on April 13 to combat the upsurge in attacks in the country.

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Belem believes that the government must recognise the part played by the soldiers, “not to discredit the army but to prevent another massacre like this from happening”.

“We support our government in this security crisis, Burkina is one and indivisible; even people from Karma have signed up to the VDP,” he said.

“But we need credible investigations, including into our own army’s actions, otherwise we will not be able to defeat our real enemies: the terrorist groups who threaten our country’s integrity.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

Credit: David Rich.


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