Journalism from the heart of crises

Welcome to the beta version of our site. We'll be working as hard as we can over the next few days to smooth out any glitches. If something looks odd, please let us know by getting in touch here.

  • In militarised Mali, humanitarian responders say aid is an afterthought

    In the dust-caked town of Bankass in central Mali, Amadou Guindo waits to register for aid.


    Two weeks before, an armed group burned down the 41-year-old farmer’s village, destroying his granaries. The sack of rice and cooking oil he received, courtesy of the World Food Programme, will have to last and feed his entire family of nine.


    The Guindos are among the latest to flee conflict in central and northern Mali, where inter-communal violence, attacks by extremist groups, and counter-terrorism operations are triggering a worsening humanitarian crisis in the West African nation.


    As needs rise, aid groups say their ability to respond is being hamstrung by an increasingly militarised security landscape marked by confusion between military and humanitarian actors, shifting conflict dynamics, and funding gaps that are leaving displaced people like Guindo sick and starving.


    The International NGO Safety Organisation, or INSO, recorded 216 security incidents affecting humanitarians in Mali last year. Since 2016, the organisation said 10 aid workers have been killed, 31 injured, and 19 kidnapped.


    After seven years of conflict, some 3.2 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2019, the UN's emergency aid coordination body OCHA said. More than 123,000 people are now internally displaced across the country – three times as many as January last year.

    According to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, or ACLED, 2018 saw the highest civilian death toll in Mali since the eruption of conflict in 2012.


    “The needs are huge,” said Hassane Hamadou, Mali country director at the Norwegian Refugee Council.


    Militarised space


    Since a 2013 French-led military intervention that dislodged Islamist groups from key towns in northern Mali, the country has seen a flurry of security interventions including: a UN peacekeeping mission known as MINUSMA, a French counter-terrorism force called Operation Barkhane, an EU military training mission and troops from five Sahelian states known as the G5 Sahel joint force, or FC-G5S.


    These international forces as well as the Malian army have been accused of stoking local conflicts, abuses against civilians, and failing to contain the violence. Islamist groups have reassembled in Mali’s desert north, expanded into the centre, and the violence has spilled over into neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso.


    Military forces have faced repeated attacks by Islamist groups, with more peacekeepers killed in Mali than any other active mission. Last month, three Guinean peacekeepers were killed during an attack on their vehicle in Siby, close to the capital, Bamako.


    In this increasingly crowded security landscape, humanitarians say attacks are creating risks for their staff in the field, who operate in close proximity to military forces. To mitigate the danger, aid programmes are frequently reduced or even suspended when military operations begin.


    “If a military force moves to a community, the armed groups follow,” said Tidiane Fall, Mali country director at Action Against Hunger. “There is a conflict between the military forces and radical armed groups, who lay improvised explosive devices on the road. Sometimes we have to take the same roads.”


    NGOs say the problem is compounded by poor coordination between humanitarian organisations, the UN peacekeepers, and other military actors. Dialogue between these groups is considered essential in emergency contexts to ensure military forces respect humanitarian activities and principles.


    But aid groups in Mali say military operations often come as surprise, and that their demand for “humanitarian space” is regularly ignored by officials from both MINUSMA and Operation Barkhane amid an atmosphere one senior aid worker described as “confrontational” and “unproductive”.


    “We tell them not to do operations because we have displaced populations and need to respond to their needs,” said the aid worker, who asked not to be named. “When we start to respond, they start doing military operations, forcing us to stop.”

    Life on a landfill for displaced Malians


    One of the most striking symbols of the current humanitarian crisis in Mali can be found in the capital, Bamako. Hundreds of Fulani herders who have been displaced by recent inter-communal violence in Mali’s central Mopti region have fled here, and are now living on a toxic rubbish dump next to a crowded livestock market. The residents complain of sickness and hunger. They say four children have died of sickness in the past few months. Their flimsy tents – covered with bits of plastic and cardboard scavenged from the piles of rubbish that surround them – are unlikely to survive the coming rains.

    Salimatha Diallo fled her village after an attack by an armed group left her husband dead.
    A herder who works at a livestock market next to the camp tends to his cattle.
    Djeneba Diallo sits inside a flimsy tent where five other members of her family are currently living.




    Jeopardising access


    To avoid attacks by extremists and other rebel groups, NGOs say they must carefully explain humanitarian principles of independence and neutrality to local communities. But these efforts are being hindered by military actors “using humanitarian interventions to build military acceptance,” said Jamal Mrrouch, head of mission at Médecins Sans Frontières.


    MINUSMA’s Quick Impact Projects, for example, include short-term interventions in healthcare, education, and food security among others area, while Operation Barkhane is also involved in a number humanitarian activities.


    Aid groups say these efforts to win “hearts and minds” increase the likelihood of association between military forces – who are party to the Mali conflict – and humanitarian actors, leaving staff in the field vulnerable to attacks.


    “It causes confusion in people’s minds and can jeopardise our access,” said Hamadou of the NRC.


    Further concerns have been raised about MINUSMA and Barkhane using white vehicles that are not clearly identified as military. It is intended as a security measure to avoid attracting attention, but humanitarians, who use the same or similar vehicles, have questioned its legality and the risk it poses to their staff.


    “It makes us the same targets,” said Fall. “They should have to identify as military.”


    Efforts to keep humanitarian and military actors separate face another challenge in the form of a new concept embraced by donors and the UN known as the “triple nexus”. The concept envisages development, peacemaking, and emergency relief programmes working more closely together.


    Harmless enough on paper, in Mali it has encountered strong resistance from some internationals NGOs who do not believe MINUSMA and other military actors should be involved in humanitarian relief and question what peace means for the different parties.


    “We have said we cannot accept the triple nexus without defining the peace pillar,” said Fall. “We want to know what it means for humanitarian actors and military actors.”


    Shifting conflict


    “As humanitarians we must stick to our principles. The only criteria is need.”

    While the worst of the violence in Mali was previously in the country’s desert north, today it is concentrated in the centre, where a new, grassroots Islamist insurgency has emerged, triggering cycles of inter-communal and militia violence.


    Aid groups say the varying dynamics of conflict in the north and centre are impacting humanitarians differently. In the north, NGOs and their staff are often victims of theft because of the perception they represent a certain degree of material wealth. Since 2017, most have stopped using their own vehicles and instead hire 4x4s from local communities.


    “Humanitarians are sources of wealth as they employ staff, contract with suppliers, and so on,” said Franck Vannetelle, Mali country director for the International Rescue Committee.


    Banditry is less of a problem in central Mali but local regulations – often motivated by military concerns – are having an impact on humanitarian operations. For example, last year the government announced a ban on motorbikes and pick-up vehicles in certain areas to prevent armed groups from moving freely.


    “This has affected the population reaching health centres, as well as humanitarian actors,” said Mrrouch. “Some villages are only accessible by motorbikes.”

    Inter-communal violence between Fulani and Dogon armed groups in the Mopti region of central Mali has also forced NGOs to rethink which staff members they hire and send into the field, and has created access problems when moving from one community to the next, according to NRC’s Hamadou.


    “There are some instances where armed people are reluctant when they see you supporting a particular community,” he said. “As humanitarians we must stick to our principles. The only criteria is need.”


    Funding concerns


    While donors are showing increased interest in central Mali as needs rise, overall funding for the country is “stagnating”, said Paul Reglinski, Mercy Corps deputy country director for programmes.


    Mali’s 2018 UN humanitarian response plan was just 54 percent funded. Last November, NRC issued a statement claiming more than 34,000 displaced people were being left without humanitarian assistance. The UN appeal for 2019 is currently just 3.3 percent funded.

    “This year we are very worried about the ability to finance the humanitarian response plan,” said Fall.


    “It is difficult to find anywhere safe. I have lost hope."

    The general feeling is that the bulk of the international community’s money and energy will continue going towards military efforts against extremist groups – to the detriment of aid agencies and the communities they support.


    “All of this securitisation, and the daily life of the population doesn’t change,” said Mrrouch.


    In areas like Bankass, neither the national army nor the UN peacekeepers nor any other foreign forces appear able to stop the escalation of violence – leaving people like the farmer Guindo, and thousands of others, displaced, dependent on aid, and unsure where to go next.


    “It is difficult to find anywhere safe,” Guindo said. “I have lost hope."



    “When we start to respond, they start doing military operations, forcing us to stop”
    In militarised Mali, humanitarian responders say aid is an afterthought
  • As peace efforts falter, violence in central Mali spirals further out of control

    Housseyni Diallo thought the smoke and flames he saw were from an early morning bonfire lit in the final revelry of a New Year’s Eve celebration. He was wrong: armed men were burning down parts of his village, in central Mali’s Mopti region.


    Diallo, a Fulani herdsman, hid in an abandoned house for safety, peering occasionally through the window as swarms of men from an ethnic Dogon armed group went on a rampage through the community; killing 37 men, women, and children, burning huts and granaries, and depriving villagers of their means of survival.


    “We never thought something like this could happen,” said the herdsman.


    The massacre – in a village called Koulogon – was one of the deadliest, most gruesome episodes in a year-long conflict between Dogon and Fulani armed groups that has enveloped this region of roughly two million people, emptying villages and leaving hundreds dead and wounded, according to the International Federation of Human Rights.


    In mid-February, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known by its French acronym MINUSMA, said it is investigating two new attacks on Fulani villages in the region. In both cases armed men killed civilians and set fire to “huts, granaries, and livestock”, the UN said. Dogon communities are also facing attacks, according to local officials and displaced people interviewed by IRIN.

    The recent wave of violence comes despite stepped-up efforts to end the unrest here, including peace agreements between communities, ceasefire commitments, airstrikes by French forces, presidential visits, and a government-backed demobilisation, disarmament, and reintegration, or DDR, scheme that has just got going.

    But the efforts have not been enough to mend relations between central Mali’s different communities, which have been soured by the presence of al-Qaeda linked jihadists, whose recruitment of Fulani herders has fuelled distrust with the Dogon in particular.


    Read more: New violence eclipses Mali's plans for peace


    Armed groups on both sides are imposing sieges on villages, restricting access to healthcare centres, local markets, and fields, and triggering hunger and sickness among residents.


    The conflict is responsible for driving the highest death toll in Mali since the outbreak of war in 2012, while the number of internally displaced people has tripled since January last year to 123,000, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA. More than 50 percent of those fleeing their homes are from Mopti.


    “Continuous displacement is taking place,” said Ute Kollies, OCHA’s head of office in Mali.


    Northern roots


    The violence in the centre has roots in a longer-standing crisis in northern Mali, where separatist Tuareg rebels joined by Islamist militants seized large parts of territory in 2012 following a military coup in the capital, Bamako.


    A 2013 French-led intervention pushed the Islamists back as they tried to march south. But they have since regrouped and expanded from the desert north into Mali’s fertile centre, turning Mopti into the country’s deadliest region.


    Known by some as the Macina Liberation Front, or FLM, the militants here have gained ground by recruiting from among the region’s Fulani community, a pastoralist group who have been disadvantaged by government and development programmes that favour agriculture.


    Many hoped the killing of their charismatic leader, Amadou Koufa, by French forces in late November, would halt the group’s expansion and quell the violence. But last Thursday a new video surfaced suggesting Koufa is in fact still alive.


    An “accelerated” DDR programme for the centre, launched by Prime Minister Soumeylou Boubèye Maïga in December, also raised hope of a resolution to the conflict, with 5,000 combatants registered as of January, including fighters from Dogon and Fulani self-defence groups.


    Meanwhile, international NGOs and Mali’s Ministry of Social Cohesion and Reconciliation are implementing inter-communal dialogues that have resulted in a string of local peace agreements between members of both groups.


    But on the ground the situation is deteriorating. In Koulogon, witnesses describe a brutal, premeditated attack involving up to 100 traditional Dogon hunters known as “Dozos”, supported by men from local Dogon villages. Local officials and witnesses said the attack was rooted in a decades-old grudge over land ownership. High-profile Fulani families were shot dead and then burnt inside their houses. Bodies were mutilated.


    “Now we are suffering,” said the herdsman, Diallo. “We don’t even have pots to cook.”


    In nearby Minima Kanda, 60-year-old imam Saydou Sidibe said his small hamlet was attacked at roughly 4am in mid-February by “young Dogon from local villages”. When soldiers finally secured the area, he returned to find five bodies on the ground – including his niece Weloore – and his livestock stolen.


    “They came to take our wealth and take our land,” he said. “Everything our ancestors built for us.”

    Hunters lose control


    Many lay the blame for these attacks on Dan Na Ambassagou – the main Dogon self-defence group in the region. The group is mostly composed of ramshackle fighters with artisanal weapons and traditional hunting uniforms. But UN officials say the group has received support from prominent figures in Bamako and may contain fighters from abroad.

    The group’s national coordinator, Mamoudou Goudienkile, said they have not attacked any Fulani villages since signing a unilateral ceasefire agreement last September. A retired general in the Malian army, Goudienkile said his men are cantonned at more than 30 sites across Mopti, awaiting DDR.


    “We are not fighting,” said Goudienkile.


    But UN officials say that’s unlikely and that Dan Na Ambassagou does not have control over all Dogon fighters in the region in any case. The attacks in Koulogon and Minima Kanda suggest many are now acting independently, taking their cues from village chiefs and responding to the needs of their local communities as and when they arise.


    Read more: “I have lost everything”: In central Mali, rising extremism stirs inter-communal conflict


    “We can be attacked at any moment,” said the leader of one self-described “independent” Dogon self-defence group, which formed three months ago in a village near Bankass town.


    That fear is not misplaced. Dogon villages are also being attacked and civilians displaced at an alarming rate over the past weeks and months. Some locals blame Fulani self-defence groups, others blame Islamist militants, or a combination of both.

    Amadou Guindo, 41, a Dogon farmer from Boila, 67 kilometres from Bankass, said armed Fulani men “mixed with jihadists” entered his village a few weeks ago telling every Dogon to leave. “They said: ‘the Dogon have chased us away in Koro (an administrative region next to Bankass), so we won’t let you settle here’.”

    “Now we are suffering. We don’t even have pots to cook.”

    Guindo said the villagers decided to stay put because “we have been here for 30 years”. But six days later the armed men returned, shooting wildly at civilians and burning down houses and granaries. Three people lost their lives, Guindo said, among them a young woman shot dead in a chicken coop, and Guindo’s own son, 16-year-old Malick.


    “We lost everything,” Guindo said.


    Villages under siege


    Both Fulani and Dogon communities describe siege-like conditions, with armed men preventing civilians from leaving their villages to access local markets, fields, and healthcare centres. Many are falling sick.


    At the nutrition ward of Bankass hospital three-year-old Fousseyni Ziguime lay on a gurney, a feeding tube through his nose and a tattered pink cloth covering his skeletal frame.


    For three months, his mother said armed men left her too afraid to leave the village and seek medical attention. Instead, she relied on traditional medicine that has made matters worse. Now her son has malaria, a respiratory infection, and severe acute malnutrition. He can barely open his eyes.

    “We don’t have a lot of hope,” said Aminata Djire, the nurse looking after him.

    To end the conflict, analysts say the government must address local grievances, particularly those that are turning Fulani herders into the hands of jihadists. This includes tackling state corruption, military abuses, and economic policies that work to the disadvantage of pastoralists.


    For now the government’s priority lies in convincing more fighters to join the DDR programme. But the process will likely take time, and will not include Islamist militants who, like their counterparts in northern Mali, are not party to any peace initiatives.


    “They will never come to us,” said Oumar Dicko, chairman of the DDR commission in Mopti.


    The fear is that so long as Islamist groups remain present in Mopti, Fulani communities will continue to be held collectively responsible and the cycle of retribution and revenge will go on.


    The new self-defence group in the village near Bankass certainly has no intention of disarming. During an interview with IRIN last week, the group’s leader – who asked not to be named – received a panicked phone call from one of his fighters. The fighter was monitoring activity in neighbouring villages and said armed Fulani men were mobilising to attack them.


    Checkpoints were quickly set up around the village’s perimetre and a motley crew of local youth armed with sticks and hunting rifles was assembled. In the end their presence proved enough to prevent an attack, the leader said later that day, but removing the fear everybody here is living with will be a much taller order.


    “We are all afraid,” he said.



    “We can be attacked at any moment”
    As peace efforts falter, violence in central Mali spirals further out of control
  • In eastern Burkina Faso, local grievances help militancy take root

    It is part of one of the most important nature reserves in West Africa, home to endangered lions, cheetahs, and elephants, attracting tourists from around the world. But in the forests of eastern Burkina Faso – a landlocked former French colony of roughly 17 million people – a new type of visitor can now be found: Islamist militants.


    The militants, whose affiliation remains unclear, are gaining ground by tapping into long-standing social grievances linked to poverty, poor social services, and the conservation of protected parks, local analysts and officials say.


    Since early last year, they have launched a string of deadly attacks on government officials, soldiers, and residents, turning the sparsely populated eastern region into the latest front of Burkina Faso’s three-year struggle against violent extremists.


    These attacks mark a significant geographical shift for militants operating in Burkina Faso, who were until recently limited to the country’s arid north, close to the border with Mali. This has left states that border the eastern region – Togo, Benin and Ghana, all on West Africa’s coastline – fearing they might be the next targets of a similar militant insurgency.


    With two battlefronts now open, the number of violent attacks in Burkina Faso is rising fast. Earlier this month ethnic clashes triggered by militant incursions in the north left at least 46 dead, while an ambush on government forces in late December killed 10 gendarmerie and injured three others, according to Burkina Faso’s security ministry. Last week, authorities extended the state of emergency imposed after the attack for another six months.


    In just 12 months, the number of people fleeing their homes – mostly in the north – has risen from 9,000 to more than 50,000. As medical workers abandon their posts, around 100,000 people have been left without access to healthcare facilities, while 96,000 children lack formal education following threats and attacks on schools.


    In 2019 the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, estimates that 1.2 million people will be in need of emergency assistance.


    “The country has never experienced what it is going through now,” said Metsi Makhetha, the top UN official in Burkina Faso.


    Local grievances


    Much of the eastern area falls within the W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) ecological complex, a series of protected parks spanning Burkina Faso, Benin, and Niger, parts of which are listed by international agencies and conventions including UNESCO and Ramsar.

    “They offer people dignity, economic opportunity, and land. They offer them back what the state has taken.”

    The protection of these spaces has led to conflicts over public access to land and mining sites, while new boundaries for pastoral zones for grazing animals has resulted in some residents being forcibly evicted from their villages. These are the kinds of grievances the militants have been quick to seize upon.


    “They offer people dignity, economic opportunity, and land,” said independent Burkinabe researcher Mahamoudou Savadogo. “They offer them back what the state has taken.”


    Mining sites, hunting concessions, tourism, and cotton production contribute substantial amounts to the national economy, but locals rarely benefit, Savadogo said.


    “It is a rich region, but people are very poor.”


    The militants also feed into wider national and regional dynamics. Burkina Faso is among a number of countries in the Sahel, including Mali and Niger, that are witnessing an alarming increase in violent extremism that is destabilising the region.


    In Burkina Faso, the extremists have found a country with a security apparatus weakened by the fall of Blaise Compaoré, who ruled the country for 27 years before a popular revolution sent him packing in 2014. It has been weakened further by the dissolution of Compaoré’s elite army unit, the Regiment of Presidential Security, or RSP.


    Hundreds of attacks have since been recorded, including major assaults on the capital, Ouagadougou, while a homegrown Burkinabe Islamist group known as Ansaroul Islam – which has close links to militants in Mali – has emerged in the country’s northern Soum province.


    Ansaroul Islam are now among the groups thought to be involved in the violence in the east, as are Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), armed bandits, and young local men radicalised while studying at Islamic schools in Mali. In hushed voices some government officials even suspect the long arm of Compaoré and his dissolved, disgruntled RSP troops.


    “All analyses are plausible,” said Ousmane Traoré, the governor of the eastern region.

    Civilians targeted


    While the militants have found common interests with some local residents in the east, the cost has been high for many others. In recent months dozens of troops have died in roadside bombs and ambushes, while a growing number of civilians are also being targeted.


    “They take root, then they show their true colours,” said a local official from one of the east’s most conflict-affected towns, who like many people interviewed by IRIN did not want to be named for fear of reprisals.


    School teachers, in particular, are in the firing line. Just 150 kilometres to the east of Fada N’gourma, in the commune of Kantchari, schools are closed and students are idle.


    In late November, militants forced the administrator of the largest primary school in town to round up the French language textbooks and set them on fire. A classroom and office burnt down in the blaze; the nearby schools closed down in fear.

    “Every day I am afraid of what might happen to my parents.”

    Only a fortunate few students have been able to relocate to safer areas like Fada N’gourma. But even in safety, life is challenging. A rail-thin 15-year-old girl with a deep cough said she is living alone in Fada N’gourma with her younger sister – only the generosity of her teachers ensuring she is properly fed.


    She was recently moved down a school year because there was no space left in her own age group and spends her days paralysed by fear of what is going on back in her village. “Every day I am afraid of what might happen to my parents,” said the girl.

    As state officials flee the east, the government’s already limited capacity to help those in need is dwindling. In September, a landslide at a militant-controlled gold mine in the eastern town of Kabonga left between 50 to 100 people dead. Nobody knows the precise number because the state was unable to launch a rescue mission.


    A 35-year-old farmer on his first ever trip to the mine “had hoped to be blessed by God and find gold”, according to his younger cousin. Instead, he was buried alive – “immediately and brutally” – leaving behind a young wife and two small children with little means of support.


    “It is heartbreaking,” the cousin said.


    ‘They have hurt us so much’


    While the humanitarian toll of the violence in the east remains relatively low level, signs of what might come can be found in the Soum province of northern Burkina Faso, where clashes between militants and the army have caused tens of thousands of civilians to flee their homes in the past few months.


    It is here that Ansaroul Islam first set up base in late 2016 using a similar strategy of tapping into social grievances, and it is here where they continue to gain strength despite recent military operations against them.


    A 59-year-old farmer from Belede, a small village in Soum, said Ansaroul Islam militants spent two years harassing his neighbours for money and information on the whereabouts of local authority figures. When the villagers finally stopped cooperating, the militants grew angry. One day, three months ago, they rounded up locals at the market and told them to leave.


    “They said: ‘if we come back and find you here, you won't escape’,” the farmer recalled from a flyblown cafe in Kongoussi, 90 kilometres south of Soum. “When somebody tells you this, you do what they say.”


    Among the displaced are many who have fled abuses by the Burkinabe armed forces. They have engaged in killings and arbitrary detention during counterterrorism operations, according to Human Rights Watch.


    Most at risk are members of Soum’s majority Fulani ethnic group, who are targeted for recruitment by the militants and are stigmatised by security forces. One Fulani teacher who shares his surname – Dicko – with the founder of Ansaroul Islam, said four members of his family (all Dickos) were loaded onto the back of a military pickup truck near the village of Damba roughly a year ago, driven into the bush, and executed.


    “If you are a Fulani and a Dicko you are in trouble,” said the teacher.


    For months, humanitarians said the displaced in Soum did not want to register for aid because they were so afraid the militants would accuse them of speaking with “outsiders”. But as healthcare centres and schools closed and agricultural activities became harder to perform, many are left with few options.

    The farmer from Belede said 18 members of his family now share a small rented house in Djibo, the provincial capital of Soum, one mattress and one mosquito net between them. As his savings dwindle, evening meals have become increasingly rare.


    “We need to act,” said Makhetha, the UN official, “and act urgently”.


    Military operations


    In the east, as in the north, the government's response has been to launch military operations. They have been supported by French troops from a 3,000-strong counterterrorism force in the Sahel called Operation Barkhane, on its first mission in Burkina Faso.


    But analysts say military force is unlikely to address the local grievances militants in the east are tapping into. Instead, they fear it will create a cycle of killings, distrust, and displacement – a cycle some feel has already begun.


    In December, a young homeless boy was found strangled to death outside the house of a local preacher in Namoungou, a village close to Fada N'gourma. Many say he was killed by militants after startling them with the light of a torch during an early morning operation. Others say he was killed by the army who mistook him for a militant.


    Whatever the truth, one local teacher said the sound of an approaching motorbike – the militants’ preferred mode of transport – is now enough to make the few students still in class freeze in terror.


    “Shocked,” said the teacher. “Everybody here is shocked.”



    “The country has never experienced what it is going through now”
    In eastern Burkina Faso, local grievances help militancy take root
  • New violence eclipses Mali's plans for peace

    A baby boy burnt alive in his mud-walled hut by a militia group. An elderly man killed by stray bullets as he returned home from a market. Villagers besieged by Islamist militants and now simply starving to death.


    For Doguel Kodio, a 38-year-old farmer displaced by conflict in Mali’s central Mopti Region, the past year has no point of comparison: “I have never seen anything like this,” he said.


    Neither has anybody else.


    Not too long ago, tourists from around the world would visit this part of Mali: sailing north up the River Niger to the fabled city of Timbuktu or trekking east to the sandstone cliffs of Bandiagara, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1989.


    Kodio’s village was near one of the most popular trails, where long lines of travellers could be found enjoying the ancient villages and the spiritual world of Dogon country. But now the tourists are gone, the hotels are empty, and the area is better known as the new epicentre of Mali’s six-year conflict.


    “Everything here has been burnt,” said Kodio, describing his village.


    Fighting between al-Qaeda-linked extremists, self-defence militias, and government soldiers has displaced tens of thousands of people this year in central Mali and left hundreds dead, the International Federation of Human Rights said last week.

    Map of Mali showing Mopti Region, Timbuktu and Bamako

    The unprecedented scale of violence in a previously peaceful part of the country has many wondering whether the 2015 peace agreement, signed between the Malian government and armed groups, is still fit for purpose.


    It was meant to kickstart a new era of stability in Mali after an uprising by separatist Tuareg rebels, who seized large parts of the north following a 2012 military coup in the capital, Bamako. But years on, the Mali conflict has evolved, spreading from the north to the centre, which was relatively stable when the deal was written and signed.


    Meanwhile, key elements of the accord such as the devolution of power and economic development in the north – as well as justice, reconciliation, and the demobilisation of combatants – have barely begun.


    “Fail to take these things into account,” said Baba Dakono, a Bamako-based researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, and “in five to 10 years time another rebellion [in the north] could begin.”


    As the agreement stalls and violence spreads, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, says 5.2 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. The number of internally displaced people has doubled since December last year, from about 38,000 to more than 75,000 in August.


    OCHA also recorded 146 security incidents affecting humanitarians in Mali between January and August this year, a 60 percent increase compared to 2017, while UN peacekeepers continue to be killed by Islamist groups in higher numbers than any other ongoing peace operation.

    A UN peacekeeper with a gun looking out in front of a UN tank
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Peacekeepers on patrol in the Mopti Region.

    Conflict spreads to the centre


    Once confined to the desert north, conflict spread to central Mali with the arrival of Islamist militants led by the radical, marabout preacher Amadou Koufa – killed last week by French forces, according to the Malian army.


    Since late 2015 the militants have: banned music, weddings, and baptisms; veiled women; closed schools; and conducted a string of targeted assassinations in areas under their control.


    “There is now no village left where you can play the drums or flute or even listen to music,” said one village chief who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals.


    The violence was initially overlooked by the Malian government and by the UN mission in Mali, known by its French acronym MINUSMA, whose latest mandate makes reference to the centre for the first time but does not offer any additional resources.


    When UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited in May, the mission’s top official in the Mopti Region, Fatou Thiam, had a simple message: “Act now before it is too late”.


    But for many it already is.


    Last year the extremists – known as the Macina Liberation Front (FLM) – became part of the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM, the official branch of al-Qaeda in Mali. Since then, attacks have multiplied both in frequency and sophistication.


    In response, the Malian government has launched an “Integrated Security Plan for the Central Regions”, but this has seen little success. A recent military campaign against the jihadists, known as Operation Dambe, has included summary executions and enforced disappearances, in turn triggering even greater violence from the extremists.



    “When the government patrols come, the jihadists hide,” said another village chief. “When the soldiers leave, the jihadists then come back and suspect us of collaboration.”


    By focusing its recruitment on central Mali’s Fulani herder communities, the FLM has also inflamed communal tensions between them and the Dogon and Bambara ethnic groups, all of whom compete for access to resources like land and water.


    Now the jihadists – and Fulani civilians accused of harbouring them – are facing a backlash. Hundreds of traditional Dogon hunters, known as Dozos, have formed a loosely structured militia that has been killing and forcibly displacing Fulani.


    Oumar Barry, 38, from a village called Fombory Dognou, said 10 men including his uncle, brother, and cousin were killed when hunters stormed his village during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan (mid-May to mid-June). After the attack, he said the militia smashed down the houses made of mud and burnt those made of wood.


    “We lost everything,” said Barry.


    In October, the militia – known as Dana Amassagou, or hunters in God’s hands – agreed to a ceasefire. But last Thursday it announced its intention to withdraw from the agreement, citing continued attacks by “Fulani terrorists”.


    While the FLM’s affiliation with al-Qaeda puts the group on the global jihadist map, analysts say the conflict in central Mali has localised root causes. Fulani men were attracted to Koufa less for his ideology than his ability to manipulate long-standing grievances such as bad land management, corruption, and, more recently, abuses against Fulani by the Malian army.


    Shoehorning these local problems into a peace agreement structured around the north won’t work, “because the problems are so different”, said Alex Thurston, visiting assistant professor at Miami University of Ohio. While the Malian government is used to negotiating with “relatively known players from the north”, here they are facing “a bottom-up jihadist revolution”, Thurston added.


    Problems fester in the north


    As chaos spreads in the centre, grievances remain largely unaddressed in the north, where Tuareg rebels have risen up four times since Mali’s independence from France in 1960, inspired by feelings of marginalisation, neglect, and repression at the hands of the southern-based government.


    ☰ Read more: The conflict’s separatist roots


    Led by the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), Mali’s 2012 rebellion was boosted by the return of Tuareg rebels who had fought for Muammar Gaddafi in the Libyan civil war.


    They took advantage of a military coup in Bamako to seize large parts of the north and declare an independent state called Azawad, before being sidelined by militant Islamist groups they had opportunistically allied with.


    While the conflict shook the nation, it was in fact the fourth time Tuaregs from the north had risen up since Mali’s independence from France in 1960.


    A series of peace deals promised greater autonomy and economic development for the north but few of the provisions were meaningully implemented and the problems never truly solved.


    Today, power remains concentrated in Bamako, whose presidential palace and fancy government offices contrast starkly to the desert north, where roads give way to dust, sand dunes, and mile upon mile of ungoverned space.


    The failure of past agreements to bridge this divide has fuelled distrust and cast a shadow over the current agreement, which many armed groups are convinced the politicians in Bamako have no intention of keeping their word on.


    “The government does not want to apply the agreement,” said Mahamadou Djeri Maïga, a leading figure within the MNLA, who passed away shortly after IRIN interviewed him in September.


    The 2015 agreement offered to significantly decentralise power and economic resources to the north, with new regional assemblies and local leaders elected by the public. But, as with past agreements, progress has been painfully slow.


    Some analysts now doubt whether greater power in the form of elected regional presidents is even in the interests of the leaders of armed groups, whose popularity among civilians in the north is largely untested and who benefit from a range of organised criminal activities including drug, migrant, and weapons trafficking.


    “If you have elections that are free, fair, and transparent, they might not necessarily attain the amount of power that they presently hold,” said Yvan Guichaoua, a lecturer at the University of Kent who has studied Tuareg rebellions in the region since 2007.


    While decentralisation plans stall, progress has been made in establishing interim authorities in some of the northern towns the state was forced to withdraw from. Joint security patrols involving combatants from rebel groups and government troops have been introduced to improve security and help rebuild trust between the different parties.


    But both measures are underfunded and face attacks from jihadists, who have regrouped in the north since a French military intervention pushed them back in January 2013.


    Negotiating how many posts armed groups get in the interim authorities and the joint patrols has also proved nightmarish in the midst of a fragmenting rebel landscape.


    Groups that were part of the two coalitions that signed the 2015 accord – the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA) rebel coalition and the pro-government Platform of Armed Groups (Platform) – have split away amid disagreements, government co-option, and power struggles.


    ☰ Read more: Mali’s northern rivalries


    Clashes between the CMA and the pro-government Platform have regularly broken out since the signing of the 2015 peace agreement, and tensions remain high despite a ceasefire deal signed in September 2017.


    El Hadj Ag Gamou, the Tuareg leader of GATIA, a pro-government militia and the dominant force within the Platform, still holds a long-standing ambition to conquer Kidal, which is controlled by the CMA and is a traditional stronghold of Tuareg rebels.


    He is motivated by a mixture of social revenge – GATIA members are belittled as a “lower” social status than the Ifoghas who lead the CMA – and military honour, having lost battles for Kidal on a number of occasions.


    In interviews with IRIN, GATIA members repeatedly accused the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) – the dominant faction within the CMA that’s composed of former members of Islamist group Ansar Dine – of engaging in terrorist activities they say undermine the peace agreement.


    Founded in 2013, the HCUA is composed of former members of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group led by the veteran Tuareg rebel Iyad Ag Ghali. Despite publically disavowing extremism, the HCUA’s relationship to Ag Ghali remains “ambiguous” according to Guichaoua, from the University of Kent.


    A recent report by the UN’s panel of experts claimed some HCUA members, including Secretary-General Alghabass Ag Intalla, have met or maintained links with terrorist organisations.


    “There is bad blood inside the CMA,” said Gamou’s son, El Hadj Ag Sidi Mohamed. “If it is not treated, this ceasefire will not hold for long.”


    Known as “dissidents”, they have since found themselves sidelined from the 2015 agreement despite their military strength on the ground.


    “The dissident groups make up four fifths of all the armed groups in the nation,” said Moussa Ag Acharatoumane, leader of the Movement for the Salvation of Azawad, a CMA splinter group. “The CMA and Platform are empty.”


    The issue has created something of a conundrum for the international community and the Malian government: let the splinter groups into the agreement and risk incentivising further splits or exclude them and risk violent struggles.


    The latter has already happened to some degree. On one occasion, dissidents physically blocked CMA combatants from joining a joint patrol. On another, they prevented the interim authorities from functioning until the government agreed to include them.


    ‘Delicate questions’


    To rein in the power of armed groups, the government is trying to disarm combatants in a national disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) process that has also been extended to self-defence militias in the centre.

    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN
    Moussa Doudou Haïdara, chief of staff at the Malian Ministry of National Integration and DDR.

    But efforts have proved cumbersome, with armed groups reluctant to provide lists of fighters and inflating their numbers when they do. Decisions over which combatants will get which positions within the army are yet to be made.


    “These are very delicate questions,” said Moussa Doudou Haïdara, general coordinator of the National Commission on DDR.


    Meanwhile, for ordinary people displaced by the ongoing violence in central Mali such questions seem a long way away.


    At a camp for displaced Fulani in Bankass, a small, dust-blown town in Mopti, hunger and safety are more pressing concerns.


    Tied around tree trunks, a few cows and rail-thin goats are all these people managed to salvage when their villages were stormed by the Dogon militia group earlier this year.


    Some fled across the border to the northern part of Burkina Faso, itself facing an uprising by islamist militants; the rest have taken refuge in informal camps like this one, where many remain, too afraid to return home.


    “All I want is to find somewhere to live in peace,” said Amadou Barry, an elderly village chief who lost five members of his family in one attack last June. “But I don’t know where.”



    The central Mopti Region faces “a bottom-up jihadist revolution”
    New violence eclipses Mali's plans for peace
  • “I have lost everything”: In central Mali, rising extremism stirs inter-communal conflict

    Head bowed, white boubou robe billowing in the breeze, Badomou Dara trudged over what remained of his house in Kara, a small mud-built village in Mali’s central Mopti region.


    His door and iron-sheet roof were missing; his granary was a mound of rubble on the floor. In his hands, the 59-year-old held out a pile of charred groundnuts he had cultivated, before crumbling them into dust.


    “It is painful to look at,” he said.


    Besides one stoic village chief who sat sharpening his knife on a rock under the baking sun, there is nobody left in Kara. Everybody else fled the ethnic Dogon village one morning in May when armed men from the neighbouring village – populated by Fulani herdsman – climbed over a sand dune shooting wildly in the air.


    Everything of value was stolen; the rest was burnt.


    Kara is just one among dozens of villages looted and torched in the past few months as a conflict between armed members of Mali’s Dogon and Fulani communities ripples through the heart of the country, claiming hundreds of lives and displacing thousands of people.


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    Analysts say the conflict has been triggered by the increasing presence of jihadists linked to al-Qaeda in central Mali. They have recruited heavily among Fulani herders, fuelling distrust with other ethnic groups, including the Dogon, some of whom have organised into abusive new self-defence militias.


    “Both sides are killing each other,” said Fatou Thiam, head of the Mopti office of the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as MINUSMA.


    The conflict underscores Mali’s struggle to restore order three years after a peace deal was signed between the government and armed groups in the north, including separatist Tuareg rebels, who seized large parts of the country following a 2012 military coup in the capital, Bamako.


    Islamist militants, who joined forces with the separatists before a French-led intervention pushed them back, have gradually expanded their sphere of influence from the desert north into Mali’s previously peaceful centre.


    This year 5.2 million Malians are in need of humanitarian assistance, compared to 3.8 million in 2017. The number of internally displaced people has also doubled since January to 75,000, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA, the majority in the central Mali.


    In July, militant groups forced the closure of hundreds of polling stations during the first round of presidential elections, eventually won by the incumbent, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, 73.


    Thousands of Western and UN troops deployed in the country have been unable to prevent the situation from deteriorating.


    “Mali and the international community have been outpaced by the Islamists’ clever strategy,” said Corrine Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Notably how they’ve exploited local grievances, weak state presence, and long-seated ethnic tension to expand their sphere of influence.”

    Villages burnt, villagers starving


    Before the emergence of jihadism, the social fabric in central Mali was already fragile. For decades weak governance and competition over land and water caused lingering conflicts between the Fulani pastoralists, who move their herds across the region, and largely sedentary Dogon, Bambara, and Songhai farming communities.


    Those tensions were exacerbated by the rise of jihadist groups in the centre, including the Macina Liberation Front led by an influential radical preacher known as Amadou Koufa, and Ansaroul Islam, a Burkinabe Islamist group that uses southern Mopti as its rear base. New Fulani self-defence groups have also emerged in recent months.


    Analysts say the jihadists have deliberately stoked ethnic tension to drive recruitment and legitimise their presence. Local government officials and respected members of the community are systematically targeted in anticipation the Fulani community – most of whom deny supporting the jihadists - will face collective punishment.


    “Then the jihadists swoop in and present themselves as the Fulani’s protectors,” said Dufka.


    In a part of Mopti popularly known as Dogon country, this strategy began as early as 2015, when the jihadist’s presence was still embryonic. The killing of a well-known Dogon hunter called Theodore in Segue village sparked particular outrage among the local Dogon community.


    But this year the violence has risen to a whole new level as armed Fulani men, who many believe to be the jihadists, have gained strength; restricting Dogon communities from accessing fields and local markets, stealing livestock, and attacking villages.


    “They wouldn’t let us do anything until they finally chased us away,” said Amadime Kodio, 73, from Kara.


    Doguel Kodio (no relation), 38, from nearby Enema, said militants stormed his village for two hours one afternoon in May. His wife and eight children lay pressed to the floor of his single-room mud house as gunfire echoed through the village.


    After the attack the villagers fled, finding, on the outskirts of town, the corpse of a middle-aged Dogon man shot through the temple. The next day the attackers returned, Kodio said, to loot village granaries and burn down houses.

    “There was no door they did not kick down, no house they didn’t set on fire,” he said.


    Prevented from accessing their fields by jihadists, many Dogon are now also dying of hunger. Earlier this month, the World Health Organisation and Mopti’s regional health department began investigating the spread of what local media had characterised as an unusual disease in three Dogon villages in Mondoro commune.


    A report by the health department, seen on 17 August by IRIN, said at least 35 people, predominantly women and children, had died and 224 people had fallen ill since 15 March from what is now believed to be severe acute malnutrition. Improvised explosive devices have also been planted around the villages by “armed men ready to shoot anyone caught outside”, the report says.


    Hunters unite


    Convinced the state cannot protect them, traditional Dogon hunters, known as Dozos, have decided to fill the void themselves, forming a new self-defence militia they call Dana Amassagou, which translates roughly as, “hunters in God’s hands”.


    The group is responsible for a string of indiscriminate attacks on Fulani civilians and is alleged to have received weapons and training from the Malian government. Fellow Dozos from the Ivory Coast and Niger are also believed to have joined their ranks.


    Support from the Dogon community itself is mixed however, with many accounts of Dogon chiefs and civilians protecting their Fulani neighbours against the hunters.


    The national coordinator of Dana Amassagou, 47-year-old David Tembine, denied pre-emptive attacks on Fulani villages and civilians, and said the group signed a ceasefire in mid-July.


    “The Dogon never attack,” he said from a restaurant in Sévaré, north of Mopti town. “The Dogon defend themselves”.

    But the ceasefire agreement is thought to have caused a split in the Dana Amassagou ranks, with many leaders rejecting it.


    In person, the Dozos are far less diplomatic. IRIN met 50 of them during a rare encounter with international media, sat under the shade of a mango tree at a base outside a village called Walià.


    They wore dirty brown ponchos with ammunition belts tied around the waists. Their weapons included scythes and sticks and artisanal hunting rifles that leant against the tree’s thick trunk.


    The hunters say they never wanted to fight; that their goal is for Dogon country “to be like what it was before” – a world heritage site that attracted tourists from around the world.


    But their activities no longer resemble the work of a self-defence group. They now accuse all Fulani communities of harbouring the jihadists (“it is like they are their parents”) and the most vocal of them, Mamadou Poudiougo, 44, has come to a radical conclusion: “We will have peace only if the Fulani are not around”.

    “I never want to see anything like this again”


    It is not an empty threat. In Bankass, a dust-blown town in southern Mopti, thousands of Fulani have been forced to take refuge in the courtyard and classrooms of a local school. Interviews with chiefs from seven separate villages paint a picture of brutality at the hands of the Dozo, who have killed scores of civilians and burnt down dozens of villages and hamlets.


    In Gueourou, 56-year old Aly Boly said 17 people were killed in his village during an attack shortly after morning prayers one Monday morning. Sixteen of the dead were men – shot while fleeing the village – the other was a baby boy, accidentally left in a burning hut during his own naming ceremony. He died before receiving one.


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    “I never want to see anything like this again,” Boly said.

    Amadou Barry, a village chief from Dialou-Guel told IRIN he received a personal visit from a group of hunters one morning in mid-May telling him the Fulani would have to leave. Barry asked them why, “but they didn’t give a reason”, he said. “They just told me: ‘Fulani we find, we will kill’”.


    As the residents packed up their belongings, Barry tasked five of his children, aged between 13 and 24, to shepherd the village’s cattle by foot from Dialou-Guel to Bankass. But in a nearby village called Tenssagou his children were ambushed by hunters. The cattle were taken; the children killed.


    I have lost everything,” Barry said.


    Analysts say young Fulani in Mali are joining the jihadists not out of religious conviction but out of desperation in the face of bad governance, corruption, and, more recently, state and militia abuses. This year Malian defence forces were implicated in a string of mass atrocity crimes against Fulani after a series of mass graves were discovered in Mopti in June.


    The Macina Liberation Front (FLM) – which seeks the revival of the 19th century Macina Empire, a theoretic Muslim state which existed in modern-day Mopti – has wreaked havoc on Fulani communities too: imposing strict sharia law, closing hundreds of schools, and settling scores with summary killings.


    Fulani chiefs told IRIN they now feel trapped between the brutality of the jihadists and the hunters and government forces who accuse them of supporting the groups.


    “In our village there is nobody from the FLM,” said Belco Barry, 60, from Sinda. “But still the hunters came and attacked us.”


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    Countering militancy


    Since 2013 a medley of international and regional forces have arrived in Mali to try to stabilise the country. The French have a 3,000-strong counter-terrorism force called Operation Barkhane; five West African countries have established the G5 Sahel Joint Force, focused on cross-border security; and MINUMSA has 14,000 troops.


    But they are all struggling. The G5 Force, headquartered in Mopti, is barely operational; in June its base in Sévaré town was attacked by jihadists. MINUSMA, meanwhile, has earned the moniker of the most dangerous UN mission in the world.


    Until a recent visit from UN Secretary-General António Guterres, MINUSMA’s Security Council mandate did not even cover the centre of the country.


    “Everything was focused on the peace agreement and the north,” said Thiam, the UN official in Mopti.


    MINUSMA’s latest mandate does finally make reference to the centre but makes no provisions for additional resources. The two peacekeeping companies based in the region spend most of their time escorting convoys and protecting UN bases.



    A Senegalese rapid reaction force was deployed to Mopti last year but takes its orders from UN headquarters in Bamako and has a mandate that covers all of Mali.


    “We don’t have enough resources to show more presence in the field,” said Thiam.


    Meanwhile, the jihadists keep getting stronger. Last year the FLM became part of a wider al-Qaeda-affiliated organisation called Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims, or JNIM. Its new weapons of choice are IEDs and car bombs.


    As it expands, so does the number of civilians suffering. At the school in Bankass, displaced Fulani keep on arriving – and keep on telling the same story. Lying on a mat on the ground, Oumar Barry from Kanama said Dozo hunters told his community to leave their village a week before.


    Hollow-eyed, the village chief, who arrived an hour earlier, said he first fled to neighbouring Birga, where he stood watching on, as thick smoke filled the sky and flames licked over his village, “destroying everything”.


    A week later, he looked traumatised. It was as if he was still there, still watching.



    Once confined to the desert north, unrest is spreading south, taking lives and emptying villages as it goes
    “I have lost everything”: In central Mali, rising extremism stirs inter-communal conflict
  • “Praying for peace”: Malians pick new president amid rising violence

    On Sunday, millions of Malians cast their votes in the first round of fiercely contested presidential elections amid accusations of fraud and a spike in jihadist and inter-communal violence in the West African nation.


    Candidates had promised a path out of a brutal six-year conflict that has left more than 61,000 people internally displaced as of 31 May (up from 38,000 last December) and a further 130,000 people as refugees in neighbouring countries.


    The government said it deployed 30,000 defence and security force personnel around the country to secure the vote, after militia groups in central Mali and al-Qaeda-linked extremists in the north vowed to disrupt it.


    Voting day passed off calmly enough in the capital, Bamako, but 644 out of 23,000 polling stations around the country were forced to close following reports of gunmen burning stations and ballot boxes and intimidating electoral agents, mostly in central Mali. Rockets were also fired at a UN base in the northeast.

    Opposition candidates have already raised the alarm about potential electoral irregularities, triggering fears that first-round results, expected on Tuesday, or those after the second-round run-off on 12 August may be contested.


    Concerns centre around a so-called “parallel” electoral register that contains 1.2 million more voters than a register audited by the International Organisation of La Francophonie (OIF) in April. The opposition said some of the voters are duplicates or fictitious.


    “There is a high possibility of post-electoral troubles,” said Yalla Sangare, a Mali researcher at Canada’s Sainte–Anne University.


    “The old man must go”


    A total of 24 candidates took part in Sunday’s vote, their posters jostling for space above the crowded, dusty streets of Bamako, offering promises to “Save our Mali” and “Restore hope together”. A single female candidate, Djeneba N’Diaye, stood under the slogan: “Vote for a woman, the men have failed”.


    Analysts predict a two-horse race between the incumbent, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, 73, in power since 2013, and opposition frontrunner Soumaïla Cissé, 68, a former finance minister.


    Keita arrived at a polling station in Bamako early morning on Sunday dressed in a long, white robe. He was greeted by a throng of supporters and a heavy security presence as his motorcade wound through an unpaved side-street made muddy by overnight rain.

    The supporters chanted “Boua ta Bla”, which translates roughly as “the old man won’t give up”. It is a response to a refrain popularised by Bamako’s youth activists during the campaign: “Boua ka bla”, “the old man must go”.

    “He came when Mali was down on its knees.”

    Keita, commonly known as IBK, inherited a country on the brink after a 2012 armed uprising by separatist Tuareg rebels from the north. The uprising triggered a military coup by a group of soldiers dissatisfied with then-president Amadou Toumani Touré’s handling of the crisis.


    Amid the chaos, separatists took further control of key population centres in the north. They were joined and later sidelined by al-Qaeda-linked militants who imposed strict sharia law on areas under their occupation.


    French troops intervened in January 2013 to push back the Islamist advance, and a 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission, known by its French acronym MINUSMA, was established three months later.                                                                   

    Violence rises


    Keita’s special advisor and spokesperson, Blaise Sangaré, told IRIN the security situation has “improved” under the incumbent’s watch. Extremist violence, he said, “is not only a Malian issue – it is shared by the whole region”.


    Supporters also point out that the Malian economy has expanded under Keita, with GDP growth of 5.3 percent in 2017, bolstered by agricultural and mining production.


    A person covered in green and yellow body paint waves a banner at a political rally.
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    On Friday evening, thousands of Keita’s followers crowded into a public square on the edge of the Niger river in Bamako for a final campaign rally. Abdourahamane Sissoko, a 32-year-old teacher, said Keita should be applauded for his five years in office.


    “He came when Mali was down on its knees,” he said. “He has picked the country back up.”


    But Keita, who beat Cissé by a landslide in a 2013 run-off, has seen his popularity slide in recent times, largely due to insecurity. Despite the presence of UN, French, and regional soldiers, extremists have steadily expanded their zone of influence from the porous north into the centre of the country.


    They have also launched specular attacks on the capital, including a high-profile assault on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako in 2015, and have turned MINUSMA into the most dangerous mission in UN history with 170 fatalities to date.                                                                                                       

    The run-up to Sunday’s vote was marred by attacks on a base belonging to the G5 Sahel, a regional counter-terrorism force, and an airport in the central town of Sévaré.


    Malian security forces have also been implicated in extra-judicial killings in the centre, where inter-communal violence has cost the lives of at least 300 people this year, according to the UN.


    An Algerian-brokered peace deal between separatists and the Malian government was signed in Bamako in June 2015, but analysts say it has not been meaningfully implemented.


    “We voted for IBK in 2013, hoping he would bring peace,” said Abdrahamane Camara, a 50-year-old handyman, while queuing to vote. “But things have become worse.”


    “Corruption, nepotism, clientelism”


    Detractors also criticise Keita for promoting family members to top positions, churning through five prime ministers in as many years, and squandering money while poverty remains high and food insecurity grows.


    A man in white looks directly into camera sitting in front of a building wall.
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    “Youth with a clear vision oppose IBK,” said Ibrahima Kébé, a leading youth activist. “He has been unable to bring real solutions to the country – just corruption, nepotism, clientelism.”


    Kébé and other prominent youth activists including Youssouf “Ras Bath” Bathily have publicly backed Cissé, who is likely to be the one contesting the second-round vote against Keita. Analysts say both candidates could win a run-off but see Keita’s control of state media and funds as giving him an advantage.


    Whatever the result, “the challenges facing the winner are enormous,” said Andrew Lebovich, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations.                                                                                                  

    “While all the candidates have spoken about the need to reduce corruption and improve growth and development, it will be an immense challenge to make sure any improvements reach the majority of Malian citizens,” he said.


    Of chief concern will be improving security in the north and ending a rapidly escalating inter-communal conflict in the centre that pits Fulani herders against a newly formed militia of Dogon hunters.


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    Earlier this month, Barry Hamadou, a Fulani herdsman, was ambushed by militiamen hiding in a tree on a main road near the central town of Bankass. A bullet tore through his arm, now wrapped in a cast and tied in a sling.


    On Saturday morning, the 45-year-old arrived with his family of six at an informal Fulani displacement camp on the outskirts of Bamako. With no voter card and no national identification, Hamadou was unable to vote the following day. Asked what he hoped the outcome of the election would be, he said: “I am praying for peace”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Fulani displaced from central Mali at a makeshift IDP camp in Bamako. CREDIT: Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN)



    The country is beset by Islamist extremism and emerging inter-communal strife
    “Praying for peace”: Malians pick new president amid rising violence
  • Central African Republic, part 3: ‘I have no power to complain’

    About This Series:

    Philip Kleinfeld spent five weeks reporting from inside the peacekeeping mission in CAR. His three-part series looks at UN operations in one of the world’s most neglected and least understood conflicts, the violence that hobbles humanitarian efforts, and rape victims left to fend for themselves long after initial revelations of their abuse by peacekeepers faded.

    Read part 1, Inside Mission Impossible: Peacekeeping in the Central African Republic

    Read part 2, ‘We have become the targets’: Aid workers are caught in a fast-fragmenting conflict

    The young girl approached the patrol of peacekeepers at noon on another hot day in Dekoa, a remote town in the Central African Republic countryside. She had walked into town from her makeshift home in the bush to sell cassava to displaced people living in a Catholic church. In the middle of a war zone, the UN troops were the last people she thought would cause her harm.

    She was wrong.


    A peacekeeper with a Burundian patch on his arm beckoned the girl over and told her he wanted to have sex. She refused and said she was too young. He didn’t listen. While another Burundian soldier stood idly by, the man pinned her down and raped her. When he was finished, he thrust a biscuit into her hand and waved her away.

    “It was the first time I had sex with a man and it was by force,” recalled the girl, whose name has been withheld to protect her identity. “I was scared.”


    The year was 2014, the girl was just 15 years old, and her story would become part of a wave of more than 150 sexual abuse allegations made against UN peacekeepers deployed in this small, dusty town between 2014 and 2015.


    The victims came forward to the UN’s peacekeeping mission in CAR, known by its French acronym, MINUSCA, in April 2016, a year after another sexual abuse scandal involving French peacekeepers in CAR’s capital Bangui made headlines around the world.

    “The international community doesn’t work very well for the population, but I have no power to complain.”

    The UN says it began investigating the allegations in Dekoa, which received less media attention, shortly afterwards, as well as supporting the women through UN agencies and partner NGOs.


    But two years on, IRIN’s reporting reveals stark gaps in victim assistance, a flawed investigation that triggered an internal UN review, and new allegations from women who have not previously come forward out of fear they would be stigmatised. Today, all of the victim’s cases remain “pending”, according to the UN’s database of victims.


    Since the Dekoa allegations, the UN has tried to improve its response to sexual abuse allegations by appointing Victims’ Rights Advocates in CAR and elsewhere, setting up a Trust Fund, and introducing a system that enables victims to report cases to members of their local community.


    UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently introduced a “new approach” aimed at rooting out sexual abuse from within the organisation’s ranks. But IRIN’s reporting suggests there is still a long way to go in terms of providing support and justice to victims.


    Years after she says she was abused, the young girl raped by the Burundian peacekeeper sat under the shade of a grass-weaved hut in a black skirt, flip flops, and a faded t-shirt, picking off strips of straw from the roof and arranging them on her lap. While media attention has long since faded, for her a slow, largely silent struggle for justice, assistance, and social acceptance has continued.


    It is two years since she last went to school. After she was raped, her parents said she had become an adult and stopped paying the fees. The $35 she received two years ago from UNICEF wasn’t enough to keep her in class. She says she deals with the same taunts every day (“People call me the ‘Burundi wife”) from the local community. There is no counsellor or therapist to help her.


    “The international community doesn’t work very well for the population,” she said softly. “But I have no power to complain.”

    Victims of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers find little support or justice
    Central African Republic, part 3: ‘I have no power to complain’
    Patchy support and botched investigations

    In press releases, the UN and partner NGOs say they provide wide-ranging support to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation (SEA), including monetary assistance and medical, psychosocial, and legal help.


    In Dekoa, IRIN interviewed 11 alleged victims of sexual abuse, four of whom came forward for the first time and seven who MINUSCA confirmed it was aware of and supporting.


    Of the seven, none said they had received regular, individual counselling and just one of the women – who are now aged between 15 and 23 – said she had received support for school fees.

    IRIN has also found that a catalogue of errors was committed during the original investigation into the Dekoa allegations.

    Two women who claimed to have been raped by Gabonese troops said they were looking after the children of those rapes on their own (the UN disputes the paternity in these cases). Without exception, every woman said they felt abandoned.


    IRIN has also found that a catalogue of errors was committed during the original investigation into the Dekoa allegations, which began in mid-2016 and was conducted by Gabonese and Burundian investigators together with the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight (OIOS).

    The probe, which remains unfinished, was supposed to identify victims and perpetrators of sexual abuse. But a former UN investigator with first-hand knowledge of the Dekoa investigation said DNA evidence was mishandled and interviews were conducted in ways that may have jeopardised the wellbeing of victims and adversely impacted their cases.

    The errors were so serious that a secondary inquiry into the investigation was commissioned by OIOS director Ben Swanson, who had overall responsibility for the UN’s part in the Dekoa investigatory mission.

    Out of sight, out of mind

    It takes around five hours to drive to Dekoa from Bangui: two on one of the few paved roads outside the capital; three on a short but bone-crunching dirt road that cuts through the forest and past dozens of tiny villages.


    Inside this unassuming, mid-size town almost everybody seems to know a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of UN peacekeepers. During the four-month investigation that began in mid-2016, more than 150 women were identified as potential victims and 41 peacekeepers from Gabon and Burundi were identified as suspects. Allegations were also made in Dekoa against French peacekeepers deployed on a separate mission called Sangaris.

    The Dekoa allegations came a year after another sexual abuse scandal involving peacekeepers in CAR hit the headlines. In April 2015, an internal UN report was handed to the Guardian newspaper by an American advocacy group, AIDS-Free World, whose

    Code Blue Campaign aims to end impunity for peacekeeper sex abuse. It contained allegations that children as young as nine had been raped and sodomised by French Sangaris soldiers.


    The alleged abuse took place in a camp for internally displaced people at Bangui M’Poko airport between December 2013 and June 2014. The soldiers had been deployed to protect civilians after a predominantly Muslim alliance of rebels from northern CAR, called the Séléka, ousted then-president Francois Bozizé and triggered a brutal civil conflict that is still reverberating today.


    Instead of acting on the allegations, an independent review in December 2015 found that the UN passed the issue “from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility”. The review, led by a Canadian judge, highlighted “unconscionable delays” in providing the children with basic medical care, psychological support, shelter, food, and protection.


    ☰ Read more: The children of M’poko



    IRIN also found problems with victim assistance in Bangui after interviewing three young women aged 18-20 who said they were being supported by UNICEF but described infrequent contact with the agency’s staff and a lack of psychosocial support. The women said they had been enrolled in different vocational training programmes over the past year but none were in school and their programmes had all finished.


    “I have got nothing,” said one, who was living in her grandmother’s small two-bedroom house, just a stone’s throw from the site of the now closed displacement camp where she said she had been raped.


    In PK12, a district of Bangui, IRIN met with the director of a local NGO, Yamacuir, that supports 12 young victims abused by international forces. The director, Paulin Baifo, said its contract with an international NGO had ended last year and it was unable to pay for the children’s school fees, forcing many to drop out.


    Monthly food packages and other material support had also stopped. The NGO was so short of cash Baifo said its staff were selling coal at a local market to pay the bills. Baifo said he had raised the issue with UNICEF at a recent meeting, but “they have done nothing”.


    “We don’t have the means to support the children at the moment,” he said.


    UNICEF said it had no partnership with Yamacuir but would “look into” IRIN’s findings.


    Interviewees also expressed disappointment in the decision not to bring charges against Sangaris troops. The decision came even though many victims had provided detailed descriptions of the men who abused them.


    One teenage girl who said she was raped by a French soldier in Bangui when she was 14 said her abuser was tall, muscular, and had a tattoo that began on his neck and snaked down his arm.


    “Justice is important,” she said, “But there is nobody to support me so that it can be served.”


    In Dekoa as in Bangui, it was again at a displacement camp that peacekeepers targeted many of their victims.


    A second alleged Dekoa victim told IRIN she met a Gabonese peacekeeper at a checkpoint at the entrance to the camp and began what she described as an “official relationship”.


    “‘We have come to protect the population, but I need to have a woman and I have fallen in love with you,’” she recalled him saying.


    The peacekeeper offered her $7 to rent a house 50 metres away from his base. “I had regular breakfast and food every day thanks to him,” she said.


    The relationship continued for four months until the soldier told her he was returning to Gabon. By that stage, she said, she was visibly pregnant with his child. The soldier told her he would send money to support the baby. But when she tried to contact him after he left, the line never connected.


    Left alone with the child, she turned to UNICEF, which was tasked with providing victim assistance and did so in partnership with local NGOs. After registering her name and taking her details, she said she was given a one-off payment of around $35, a kit with sugar, soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, a plastic jerrycan, and a one-off group counselling session with around 30 other women.


    None of it was sufficient. She spent the $35 almost immediately on a trip to Bangui for her uncle’s funeral. The sugar and hygiene kit lasted just a few weeks. Even the group counselling session wasn’t enough to make sure “we don’t make the same mistakes again”, she said.

    Today, the young woman ekes out a living selling a locally brewed alcohol at Dekoa’s central market. It takes her a week to prepare a single batch that she then sells for $7. It’s not enough to buy daily food and clothes for her child, let alone for her to return to school.


    “At first I thought we would register and receive support,” she said. “But it didn’t come.”


    Swanson, the UN’s top investigator, disputes some of the women’s accounts. He told IRIN that DNA testing “on around 20 victims and their children” has shown “with a high degree of confidence, that the soldiers identified were not the fathers of the children they were alleged to be.” These DNA results have not been made public.


    Every victim IRIN spoke to described a similar lack of support. A third woman, aged 23, said she was raped by a Gabonese peacekeeper one evening back in 2014. After he had finished, she said he gave her around $2 and said “come back tomorrow and we will discuss”. She met the man early the next morning and engaged in “consensual sex” on three further occasions because she needed the money.


    She made no eye contact and barely took a breath as she raced through her story. She said she wants to move away from her family to escape stigmatisation – “everyone calls me the Gabonese wife” – but needs money to start a business. She said she was currently at school but on the cusp of dropping out because her father had not paid this year’s fees. Worst of all, she said she is in almost the same financial position that led her into the relationship with the man who raped her.


    “If I had more money it would help me forget and it would mean I would not have to consider trading sex for money,” she said.


    ☰ Read more: The struggle for social acceptance



    Some of the most disturbing allegations from Dekoa involved French troops working separately to the UN. According to information leaked to AIDS-Free World, four girls were allegedly tied up and forced to have sex with a dog by a Sangaris military commander in 2014. Each girl was given the equivalent of $9 and released.


    IRIN established that at least two of the girls involved were forced to relocate to other parts of the company to escape stigmatisation. One of the girls was reported to have been labelled the “Sangaris dog” by members of the local community.


    Such stigmatisation appears to have kept a number of women from reporting cases of abuse by Sangaris troops. Four said they were speaking of their experiences for the first time in interviews with IRIN. These new alleged victims, aged between 21 and 32, provided names and physical appearances of the soldiers.


    One woman, aged 30, described beginning a relationship with a Sangaris soldier involved in military logistics. She said she met him two or three times a week over a six-month period at the Sangaris base, receiving between $2 and $10 each time. She said he promised her a passport so that she could travel to meet him in France, but then left without saying goodbye.


    When NGOs began registering people’s names for distributing aid, the woman said she was too ashamed to come forward and did not consider what had happened to her as sexual abuse or exploitation. Now, she said she has begun to think differently.


    “I was living as a refugee and I had no money,” she said. “This is why he abused me.”


    Another victim, now aged 21, said she met a clean-shaven 18-year-old Sangaris soldier on three separate occasions during his deployment. She said they met in an abandoned house close to the Sangaris camp. The man would bring a mat for the floor and food packs for her to sell on at the displacement camp. With her father absent and her 27-year-old sister recently deceased, he offered a crucial lifeline.


    “There was nobody to support me,” she said.


    Like the first women – and several others interviewed by IRIN – the 21-year-old said she had been too afraid to come forward when the NGOs began registering names.


    “They call you ‘women of Sangaris’,” she said. “I didn’t want this to happen to me.”


    IRIN shared the names of women who had given their consent to the UN’s Conduct and Discipline Team in Bangui, which said it would investigate their allegations.



    In a statement to IRIN, UNICEF said it provides “recurrent distributions” of hygiene kits and other non-food items to sexual abuse victims in Dekoa and confirmed a one-off cash payment of between 10,000 to 20,000 CFA, or $20-$35, was provided to victims in June and July 2016.


    “We continue to improve our programming with partners to provide appropriate assistance to victims,” a spokesperson said.


    UNICEF added that “Dekoa is one of the hardest to reach places in the Central African Republic”, and that “the security situation is very volatile”.


    Dekoa has experienced bouts of insecurity. Currently, though, it is free from armed groups. IRIN reached the town by taxi from Bangui in under five hours, on a road controlled by the UN and national gendarmerie.

    “A failure of management”

    In peacekeeping missions, responsibility for investigating and prosecuting suspects of sexual abuse lies with the country that contributes the troops. Last year, the UN secretary-general recommended member states take six months to complete their investigations.


    But two years after the investigation began in Dekoa, according to the UN’s public database, all cases remain pending.


    When IRIN visited the town in March, Gabonese investigators were back in the field, sitting on the grounds of Dekoa’s Catholic church, dressed in military fatigues in the prickly heat.


    MINUSCA’s spokesman Vladimir Monteiro said they had returned “to complete the national investigation, following further exchanges regarding evidence that needed to be gathered.”

    Asked what had happened in the intervening two years, the UN’s top official in CAR, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, blamed “administrative delays” in both Gabon and Burundi.


    “There was no proper follow-up by national authorities,” he said. “When you ask why we are facing delays, you find things are falling into the administrative cracks.”


    But a senior UN investigator posted to CAR during the Dekoa inquiry and involved in the 2016 investigation told IRIN the probe was hampered by delays, sudden changes of leadership, and inappropriate questioning by Gabonese and Burundian investigators, which may have harmed victims’ cases by compromising the accuracy of their testimonies.


    The source – who has since left the UN but did not want to be named – said the investigation was “painfully slow” to get off the ground. Repeated requests for resources and logistical support from MINUSCA’s senior leadership were listened to but not acted on.

    “There was no proper follow-up by national authorities.”

    When the investigation did get going, the source said a former London Metropolitan Police officer with no experience in CAR was suddenly sent by Swanson to Dekoa to lead the inquiry. The former police officer was given just a few days to prepare, while candidates who had been working on the case for months were sidelined.


    “Swanson said: ‘we will run this like a Metropolitan Police investigation’”, the ex-investigator recalled. “But Dekoa was not a London borough.”


    Swabs taken from women and soldiers involved in paternity claims were also handled incorrectly and had to be redone after lab tests were unable to extract DNA, likely delaying the investigation even further.


    UN staff quickly became concerned about the work of Burundian and Gabonese investigators, whom IRIN’s source said had no training in how to interview traumatised sexual abuse victims.


    A UN manual on interviewing survivors of trauma makes clear the importance of “empathy”, “rapport”, and avoiding “retraumatisation”. But in Dekoa women and young girls were aggressively cross-examined by the Burundian and Gabonese who were, said the former investigator, “trying to protect their country’s reputations”.


    “Without open questions and empathy you simply won’t get an accurate account of the event,” the former investigator said. “This is what research [in how to interview trauma victims] shows.”

    UN staff working alongside the Gabonese and Burundian officials should have protected victims and intervened more quickly, said IRIN’s source.

    “Some would say, ‘this is not appropriate’, but others would just let it continue,” the former investigator said, adding that OIOS leadership in New York failed to communicate how important it was to monitor the conduct and questioning of Gabonese and Burundian investigators.


    “It was a failure of management.”


    Asked whether these errors had prompted a secondary investigation, Swanson confirmed to IRIN the existence of a recently completed review document. He said the report has since been used to train other UN staff on the “lessons drawn” from Dekoa. The report has not been made public and has not been seen by IRIN.


    “I am not going to wash our dirty linen in public,” Swanson said in a telephone interview.


    Swanson confirmed “shortfalls” in the “quality of interviewing by national investigators and some of our own interviewers”, as well as problems with DNA evidence on “2-3 swabs”. He admitted his “own management of the operation could have been better” but did not accept that the overall investigation was flawed.


    “This revisionist approach which seeks to rubbish [our investigators’ work in Dekoa] and attack OIOS is as repulsive as it is unwelcome,” Swanson said, adding that further delays in the investigation are the responsibility of Gabon and Burundi, not the UN.

    “I am not going to wash our dirty linen in public.”

    Monteiro, the MINUSCA spokesman, said the results of Gabon’s investigation are expected “soon” and that Burundi has submitted its investigative findings “but additional information has been requested”.


    A spokesperson for the French prosecutor’s office, meanwhile, told IRIN that its own judicial investigation is ongoing in Dekoa but did not provide a timeline for completion or explain why it has taken so long.

    Costly errors?

    Precedent suggests the delays and errors will weaken victims’ cases. Last January, a panel of French judges decided not to bring charges against the Sangaris troops deployed in Bangui, citing a lack of evidence and inconsistencies in testimony.


    Emmanuel Daoud, a French lawyer who has been following the Sangaris case for the NGO ECPAT, which fights against sexual exploitation of children, said the investigation was badly managed, making the January dismissal “inevitable”. He said the children were subjected to multiple interviews “by different actors, at different times”.


    “The lack of coordination between those actors led to many contradictions in the declarations of the children, and therefore to the insufficiency of the charges,” Daoud said.


    ☰ Read more: Preventing peacekeeper abuse



    To improve its record on sexual abuse, MINUSCA set up a new community outreach system last September. The system enables victims to report cases to members of their local community, who can then refer the issue  to the UN. Victims can also report incidents using a toll-free number or email.


    In Dekoa, IRIN spoke to two members of the community-based network, which was established in September last year: Gerard Moussa, from the ministry of social affairs, and local government official, Guy Mbetigaza. Both said the network lacked funds and that its volunteer staff had received insufficient training given the gravity of the task. They said they had attended two short workshops last September and November. Moussa said he was unsure about what counted as sexual violence.


    “I need more sessions to understand this,” he said. “The subject is very complicated: in two three-hour sessions what are you going to learn?”

    None of the victims interviewed by IRIN said they were aware of the network or knew which local community or administrative representative to contact if they were abused again. None had access to computers, and the majority did not have functioning mobiles phones.


    The head of MINUSCA’s Conduct and Discipline team, Innocent Zahinda, told IRIN the unit had provided members of the network with 21 prepaid mobile phones and notebooks. He said the network had embarked on a public awareness campaign – putting up posters in the centre of town and going around in a vehicle announcing it on a megaphone – and added that the unit would conduct a follow-up assessment in Dekoa to “identify any gaps in their operation”.


    Paula Donovan from the group AIDS-Free World said the UN’s approach to sexual abuse and exploitation victims is largely catered towards people who live in the capital, Bangui, and have relatively easy access to social and medical services.


    “The UN says we'll have a hot-line, we're going to put up posters, we’ll refer you to the nearest psychologist for psychosocial support, we will ensure that you have immediate medical attention, a rape kit, that sort of thing,” Donovan said.  “But the UN knows that those services are extremely rare in Bangui, and they are pretty much impossible to find in the country’s remote areas.”


    In 2016, a Victim Assistance Trust Fund was established by the UN secretary-general to help address gaps in the provision of victim assistance. Its budget is currently $2 million, which is spent on sexual abuse and exploitation victims in projects based in CAR, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Liberia.


    When asked how much had been spent in CAR to date and on which projects, a spokesperson for the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations said they had not received funds until 2017 and that "the project's implementation” had not yet begun.


    The budget of the Trust Fund includes voluntary donations from member states and payments withheld from UN personnel when sexual abuse allegations against them have been substantiated. But Donovan said “there is no direct compensation for the individual victim whose plight ended up channelling funds to the trust fund.”


     “She may never see a dime,” Donovan said.


    The UN has also created victims’ rights advocates to help raise the profile of victims of sexual exploitation and abuse. But Donovan said they cannot be impartial advocates for victims' rights because they don't work for victims – they work for the UN, which also employs or contracts the alleged perpetrators.


    “That's a glaring conflict of interest.”


    Donovan also pointed out that the advocate in CAR, Natalie Ben Zakour Man, was assigned the role in addition to her regular job as child protection officer.


    “Her caseload includes hundreds of victims of UN civilian and military personnel who are subject to dozens of different UN agency regulations and legal jurisdictions,” said Donovan. “The victim/advocate ratio alone tells us that equal access and adequate assistance for victims were never the UN's objectives."



    While the number of abuse cases by peacekeepers has fallen since the 2016 Dekoa scandal erupted, most crimes still go unpunished, said Donovan, co-director of the group AIDS-Free World.


    Donovan argued that the UN should not be involved in investigating its own staff and that reports of abuse “should be received and handled by independent, external, neutral parties, who are looking for justice rather than carrying any bias.”


    Troop-contributing countries whose soldiers regularly commit sexual abuse, and whose investigators regularly conduct bogus investigations, “should no longer be contracted by the UN,” Donovan added.


    With their abusers long gone and memories of dates and details fading, women interviewed by IRIN in Dekoa seemed to be setting conservative expectations.


    “I am expecting support from the international community,” said a 26-year-old woman raped by a Burundian peacekeeper. “They are the ones who sent the troops that abused me. That would be justice.”



  • “Whoever they met, they would cut and kill”: displaced Congolese recount rebel atrocities

    At the camp for displaced people in Rukoro, nobody can remember the last time they saw an aid worker. There are no tents and tarpaulins for the roughly 300 people that live here – just a collection of tiny, tunnel-shaped huts tucked out of sight down a dirt track in this remote corner of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Rutshuru region.


    Eugenia Nzamukosha, one of the residents of Rukoro, would like to return home. She would like to drink water from somewhere better than the dirty pond under the nearby bridge; to eat food more nourishing than the bananas she forages from the bush, or the beans she receives from locals (on a good day).


    But Nzamukosha cannot go home because, like the other families here, she has no home to go back to. Last September, men from a militia composed of a different ethnic group entered her village and burnt down the small hut she and her seven children lived in.


    Eugenia is a widowed mother of seven. In three separate attacks on her home town of Birundule, her neighbour was killed, her house burnt down, and her son was stabbed.
    Alex McBride/IRIN

    A few weeks earlier, her son, Moise Nkurunziza, was stabbed in the back and shoulder by his own school teacher, who was from a different ethnic group. In another attack, her neighbour was chased by militiamen, caught, and cut into pieces with machetes.


    “When he was dead, [the fighters] put banana leaves on his body and started burning him like a pig,” Nzamukosha said.


    “The crisis is ignored”

    In May, with the help of the Congo Men’s Network (COMEN), a local NGO that fights against sexual violence in the region, IRIN made a rare visit to villages across Rutshuru, meeting displaced people who told tales of terror at the hands of armed groups.

    Rutshuru’s displaced are among 4.5 million people currently uprooted by conflict in the country, the highest number since the beginning of the Congo wars two decades ago. This year more than 13 million Congolese will need humanitarian assistance, far more than the year before.

    For the past two years, whole swathes of Rutshuru and Lubero, two territories in eastern Congo’s North Kivu Province, have been reeling from an inter-communal conflict that is – even by the standards of what has been dubbed the “world’s most neglected crisis” – flying under the radar.

    Factions of two militias – the Nyatura and the Mai-Mai Mazembe – that claim to defend different ethnic groups have been burning houses, killing civilians, and dividing communities along ethnic lines. Media reports mention around 100 killings over the past couple of years, but IRIN heard testimony about many more and a large number likely go unreported. Frequent kidnappings, attacks on aid workers, and challenging conditions for those attempting to document the conflict mean there has been little attention on the violence.

    “The crisis is ignored,” Hubert Masirika of COMEN said, simply.


    The violence is one among a series of localised conflicts that have embroiled Congo following President Joseph Kabila’s failure to organise elections and leave office in December 2016 when his second (and constitutionally mandated final) term expired. Kabila has said elections will now be held in December 2018, but he hasn’t publicly ruled out standing for a third term and further delays remain possible.


    ☰ Read more: The roots of Rutshuru’s conflict


    There are many armed groups in Rutshuru, but during the current conflict two are causing particular damage: Nyatura, a collection of around 15 ethnic Hutu militia groups that emerged in the past few years to protect the region’s Hutu community; and Mai-Mai Mazembe, a patchwork of Nande self-defence militias that formed in early 2016 to combat abuses by the feared Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) – a Hutu rebel army that includes remnants of the militia responsible for the Rwandan genocide.

    Ethnically-based rivalries between groups considered indigenous to Congo such as the Nande, and Hutus and Tutsis of Rwandan origin, known collectively as Banyarwanda, are nothing new in North Kivu. Decades of Banyarwanda migration into eastern Congo has caused bitter disputes over land, property, and who counts as Congolese.

    Recent tensions between Nande and Hutu communities flared in late 2015 however, following military operations by the Congolese army (FARDC) against the FDLR, which fled into eastern Congo straight after the 1994 genocide.


    During its operations, the FARDC proved unable to defeat the FDLR on its own, and relied strongly on proxy militias including an armed group known as the Nduma Defense of Congo (NDC) and the NDC’s then Nande allies, Mai-Mai Mazembe.


    On the back-food and lacking manpower the FDLR turned to various Nyatura factions from the Congolese Hutu community to fight on its behalf. Civilians on both sides were targeted and relations between Nande and Hutu communities were subsequently poisoned.


    The number of atrocities has since diminished due to the segregation of Nande and Hutu communities into separate villages. But attacks and killings by both groups have continued with at least 22 reported dead during two days of inter-ethnic violence in February.


    At another settlement for displaced civilians in Kiwanja Parish – a short drive from Rukoro – more than 100 displaced Hutu families live in huts made of dried banana leaves wrapped up in plastic sheeting.


    The latest arrival was Vianney Nzamuye. The 45-year-old recalled how he was in his field last December brewing banana beer with his wife and two neighbours when Mazembe fighters armed with rifles, machetes, and spears approached them in the bush.


    The militiamen stripped the group naked before tying their hands behind their backs and forcing them to climb inside a hole dug for the fermenting bananas. Next, they “began pouring earth inside and burying us alive,” Nzamuye said. The group was eventually saved from death after promising to pay a $60 ransom per person.


    Children killed and forced to fight


    Standing to Nzamuye’s right was one of the camp’s first residents, Andre Ayubu. The 53-year-old came to Kiwanja 12 months earlier from a village called Luhanga in Lubero, a territory to the north of Rutshuru.


    Ayubu recalled how Mazembe combatants stormed his village one evening and killed at least 30 Hutus living in a displacement camp by a UN base. Ayubu helped collect and bury the dead the following morning. Among the bodies, he found five young children who had been impaled on the barbs on a four-metre high thorn bush.


    “They didn’t even take any money,” he said of the Mazembe fighters. “They just came to kill and burn everything.”

    In Kibirizi, a four-hour drive from Rutshuru town on roads stalked by armed groups, IRIN heard similar stories. Eric Kasereka, a local leader among displaced Nande civilians, said he arrived in the small, dusty town in December after Nyatura fighters stormed his village of Bwalanda at 2am.


    Kasereka said he saw men slit the throat of an elderly man named Kivhula before tossing his corpse into a burning hut. In the same attack he saw fighters throw a young boy into another burning home while he was still alive. The rebels held the door shut, he said, as the boy burnt to death.

    “Whoever they met, they would cut and kill,” he said.


    Innocent Kasereka (no relation), a local leader from nearby Kishishe, said a group of Nyatura fighters attacked a school in his village last October while children were still in class. Kasereka said a teacher was cut in the back with a machete while children, some as young as six, were beaten with “big sticks that they would use as spears”.



    Now, more than 1,500 Nande households from Kishishe have moved to nearby Kibirizi. But with each new attack the number grows bigger, said Kasereka. “Whenever it happens more people move,” he said.


    According to the UN, both Nyatura and Mazembe have forcibly recruited child soldiers. In Kibirizi, IRIN met five children aged between 15 and 17 who had been separated from a Mazembe faction a month earlier. They sat pressed up to the wall of an orange-coloured hut, a streak of light shining across their faces.


    In the forest they had been part of the same unit, conducting daily patrols with instructions to shoot at Nyatura fighters on sight. Their commanders would give them drugs, alcohol, and magic water that could supposedly protect them from bullets. On several occasions, they were forced to return to their villages and rape women.


    “If you refused, they would beat you,” said a 15-year-old whose parents were killed by Nyatura in 2016.


    Limited access, little aid


    In Rutshuru, most of the displaced are living outside camps in host families that have little to offer. Since arriving in Kibirizi last August, Muhindo, 36, and his family of eight have been forced to move house five times for lack of money. “If you are not able to pay, they chase you away and you move into another place,” he said.

    In exchange for cultivating his host’s fields, Muhindo said his family receives a small serving of cassava flour and beans each day, or the equivalent of roughly one dollar. Neither is sufficient.


    “The children are severely malnourished,” he said.

    Bad roads and insecurity have weakened humanitarian access. In February, two members of the Congolese NGO Hydraulics Without Borders were killed by armed men causing NGOs to suspend their activities for several weeks.


    The risk to aid workers is currently so high, in certain areas “a helicopter is necessary for the delivery of humanitarian aid,” the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, said in May.


    With so many armed groups present in the region and operating autonomously from one-another, “it is impossible to reach an understanding [with them] where we can access the area and not have a security incident,” said one aid worker, who asked not to be named.

    Back at the Rukoro camp, there was no clean water or health services on-site and just two latrines for more than 40 families. Five children had died in the past 12 months, according to the mother-of-seven, Nzamukosha; the last of malnutrition just a few days before IRIN’s visit.

    “Here, we have nothing at all,” she said.

    Meeting the commanders


    It is rare to see the commanders who are responsible for these crimes. They hide deep in the forests and hills of Rutshuru and Lubero, in camps that can take hours to reach even with the strongest vehicles. But in rare interviews, IRIN met two of the most powerful Nyatura commanders: Domi and John Love.

    A squat man with a wide smile, Domi stood on the slope of a remote hilltop base in a plain Congolese army uniform sold to him, he said, by a starving army soldier. His baby-faced fighters lounged and chatted in the elephant grass, a few heavy weapons distributed between them. But what he lacked in manpower, he made up for in rhetoric.


    “We are sure that one day we can take power,” he said.


    While most know Domi, whose real name is Dominique Ndaruhutse, as the leader of a murderous local militia, the warlord and his unit commander, John Love, see themselves differently.


    In separate interviews they introduced themselves not as Nyatura but as the military wing of a political group they called the Collective of Movements for Change (CMC).


    They described the CMC as a rainbow coalition uniting 10 different armed groups from across the region. Its objective is not to defend ethnic Hutus or fight against opposing militias, they say, but to challenge President Kabila.


    A view of Rukoro refugee camp on the outskirts of the town of Rutshuru in North Kivu.
    Alex McBride/IRIN

    “We are without a legal government since December 2016,” said Love, who, like Domi, denied responsibility for attacks on civilians. “We want the population to vote for their own leaders.”


    The CMC is one of a number of new coalitions to emerge in eastern Congo with the stated objective of challenging Kabila. In Butembo, to the north of Rutshuru, is the National Movement of Revolutionaries (MNR), which includes a cluster of mostly Nande Mai-Mai leaders, including some Mazembe factions.

    In neighbouring South-Kivu Province is the National People’s Coalition for the Sovereignty of Congo (CNSPC), led by a former national army ally William Yakutumba, whose group Mai-Mai Yakutumba is one of the most powerful in the region.


    The coalitions involve groups traditionally considered local militia with local interests and rivalries. Now, said Love, “the primary objective is to eliminate tribal conflict” and challenge central power.


    To this end, Domi said the CMC has recently held peace talks with Mazembe. But an agreement has not been reached and Nande and Hutu civilians interviewed by IRIN remain sceptical of both groups’ true intentions.


    In Katolo, a small village of tin-roofed huts a short drive from Domi’s position, charred, blackened homes dot the hillside.


    Nyatura fighters entered the village one evening last November. They killed nine people and burned down 68 houses, according to Paul Muhindo, chief of the displaced population.


    Hundreds of Nande fled to nearby Kibirizi, where they remain, he said, unable to return for fear of Nyatura, “who control the fields [where we farm]”.


    If the government does not put an end to armed groups operating in the region, “there is a risk we will never go back home,” added Marcel Kambale, leader of the displaced community in nearby Bambo.


    “There is no safety at all,” he said.

    (TOP PHOTO: Two Nyatura Domi rebel fighters stand on guard duty in a Nyatura stronghold position outside the town of Nyanzale, North Kivu. CREDIT: Alex McBride/IRIN)


    IRIN gained rare access to civilians and militia leaders in Rutshuru, where two years of tit-for-tat attacks have left villages burnt, more than 100 dead, and communities divided along ethnic lines
    “Whoever they met, they would cut and kill”: displaced Congolese recount rebel atrocities
  • Razed villages and empty fields await Congo-Brazzaville’s displaced

    The jungle has edged into fields left untilled. It has crept onto thatched-roof houses turned to ruins; and it has stretched over empty highways once used to transport bananas, beans, cassava from a region long-known as Congo-Brazzaville’s breadbasket.


    For nearly two years, militia fighters and soldiers manning dozens of checkpoints were the only signs of life in Congo’s Pool region, 50 kilometres west of the capital, Brazzaville.


    Now, some of the 108,000 people who fled their villages during the 2016-17 conflict between the Congolese army and the “Ninja” rebels are returning home following a December peace agreement.


    But with houses and villages destroyed by the military, schools and healthcare centres unstaffed, and fear that conflict may return, many Pool residents have chosen to remain displaced or have returned to poverty and hardship.



    Yvonne Massembo, 70, fled her home in a town called Goma Tsé Tsé during the conflict. While life as a displaced person in southern Brazzaville has been hard, the mother of five, who is still living in the capital, said returning to her village would make life even harder.


    During the conflict, her small mud-hut house collapsed after the roof was stolen. Equipment from her local hospital was looted. The canoe she once used to cross the river Djoué and reach her farm was destroyed.


    “If I go back, what am I going to eat?” she said.


    Political unrest, lives upended


    Last December, IRIN was the first international news organisation to gain access to the Pool region in 20 months, to document crimes against civilians by the Congolese army and Ninja rebels.

    The southern part of the country had been sealed off as fighting raged in a conflict that took hold shortly after the March 2016 presidential elections, in which Denis Sassou Nguesso retained a post he has held for all but five years since 1979.


    ☰ Read more: The history of the conflict

    The elections were marred by allegations of fraud and followed a contested constitutional referendum a year earlier that had removed term and age limits for his post.


    After the poll results were made public, a series of attacks were carried out in Brazzaville against government, police, and military buildings in opposition strongholds.

    The government blamed the Brazzaville attacks on the Ninjas, a militia group that opposed Sassou Nguesso during civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s but had largely demobilised.


    Although the group’s leader, Frédéric Bintsamou, better known as Pastor Ntumi, denied responsibility for the post-election violence, the government attacked the villages and jungle of the Pool region, where Ntumi and remnants of his group were known to shelter.


    Sporadic clashes continued for nearly two years, as the army locked down the region. More than half of the population of eight rural districts of Pool sought refuge in nearby towns and in Brazzaville, leaving the Pool region almost entirely deserted.


    Now, life is slowly returning. The World Food Programme estimates that in some districts, such as Kimba, nearly all of the displaced residents have returned. Apart from the heartache of living away from home, the price of staple foods like cassava and rice rose dramatically during the conflict last year and is propelling many to come back to their fields.


    Humanitarian access has also improved, particularly in northern Pool, where villages were previously cut off by the military.


    “We have been able to do [food] distributions and assessments in places we couldn’t previously reach,” said Jean-Martin Bauer, World Food Programme country director in Congo-Brazzaville.

    Alain-Robert Moukouri, secretary-general of Caritas Congo, an NGO that delivers humanitarian assistance in the Pool area, said the Ninjas have now removed their checkpoints and the army has stopped harassing people for money at theirs. Businesses in towns that had long been inaccessible are now operating.


    Villages bombed, houses burnt


    But beginning life anew is proving difficult in villages that were severely damaged during the conflict. In a village called Soumouna, where the government suspected Ninjas were based, 86 structures were destroyed between late February and May 2016, according to satellite images obtained by IRIN. This time period coincides with the army’s attacks.


    The satellite data shows houses were also destroyed in Kindamba Gouéri, Mayama, and Malengo, while parts of villages were set on fire by ground troops, according to multiple interviews conducted by IRIN in Pool last December. A humanitarian worker based in the region described the military’s campaign as “scorched-earth”.


    “There is nothing left,” said Massembo from Goma Tsé Tsé, explaining why she cannot return. “All the houses were burned.”


    Displaced people are also returning to scarcity. During the conflict, fields became unsafe, causing two planting seasons to be missed. Today, many villagers are unable to feed themselves.


    The UN has spent $13 million assisting displaced people with food, money, and basic goods. Bauer of the WFP said his team has reached “a substantial number of people”.


    But needs remain vast. Bauer recently met a woman at a health centre near the capital, Brazzaville, who had returned to her village in Pool but left shortly after because she could not find food.


    “When she got back she said there was nothing there,” Bauer explained. “Her child became malnourished, so she had to come back to Brazzaville.”


    Lack of basic facilities in villages is compounding the problem. Most health centres were shuttered during the conflict. Half the primary schools in the Pool region have been closed and 65 completely destroyed, according to the UN. In districts like Vindza, all the schools are closed.


    “Life has to be rebuilt,” said Bauer.

    Peace and promises


    Previous peace agreements between the Ninjas and the government have also failed, casting doubt on whether the ceasefire will last.


    In the December agreement, the Ninjas agreed to demobilise, dismantle their checkpoints, and turn in their weapons. In exchange, the government promised “free movement” for Ninja leader Frédéric Bintsamou, better known as Pastor Ntumi – meaning he wouldn’t be arrested.


    While no clashes have taken place since December, Ntumi is still hiding in the forests of Pool, and many of his fighters have not given up their weapons.


    A Ninja spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said Ntumi is worried that an arrest warrant still hangs over his head. IRIN’s request to talk with him directly were denied.





    “There’s no freedom of movement” as promised in the peace agreement, the spokesman said, because “until now, many of those who have been arrested are still in prisons.”


    The Ninja spokesman added that local people are sceptical that peace has been reached, “because there is military in the villages”.


    “There are more soldiers in the villages than locals,” he said. This perception, he added, keeps people from returning.


    Bauer confirmed that in some cases only men have returned to tend to their crops, leaving their families in safer locations.


    Repression continues


    Rather than seeking a genuine end to the conflict, Sassou Nguesso’s motivation for signing the agreement was influenced by economic factors, said Brett Carter, assistant professor at the University of Southern California.

    One of the largest oil producers in the region, Congo-Brazzaville has been hit hard by declining prices for global crude. Skyrocketing public debt and unpaid salaries and pensions for civil servants have forced the president to ask the International Monetary Fund for a bailout.

    But talks with the IMF have dragged, with military activities in Pool undermining “Sassou Nguesso’s claims to transparency and good governance, which the IMF rightly recognised as dubious anyway,” said Carter.


    Since changing the constitution to allow him to stay in power, Sassou Nguesso has also faced growing opposition to his power. Stalwarts of his ruling Congolese Labor Party (PCT), including Charles Zacharie Bowao and Andre Okombi Salissa, have turned against him. Even his own son, Denis-Christel, has suggested he may stand against his father in elections scheduled for 2021.


    In response to these threats, Sassou Nguesso has turned to “full-scale authoritarian mode”, said Fonteh Akum, senior researcher at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies. In May, Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko, a former army general who stood against Sassou Nguesso in the 2016 presidential elections, was jailed for 20 years for “undermining the internal security of the state”. Salissa, meanwhile, is expected to face trial on the same charges this month.

    Unsure who to trust, Sassou Nguesso is likely to remain wary of the long-restive Pool region which represents, said Akum, “the one space from which military contestation against Sassou Nguesso’s government could actually emanate”.


    Rather than an “artificial” peace agreement, what is needed, said Akum, is a truth commission that can establish the root causes of the latest bout of violence in the Pool region and its consequences for civilians.


    “Those facts would be able to create some kind of understanding for who is held accountable and who needs to pay reparations for crimes committed,” Akum said.


    For now, the residents of Pool have received little closure or assistance from the government.


    “I don’t have shelter and my village has been ravaged,” said a 69-year-old currently living in Brazzaville, who gave his name as Makoudou. He said his house, in a village near Vindza, had been partially destroyed by bombs during the conflict, and the tools he needed for work had been taken.


    “That is what is preventing me from going back,” he said.


    Read Part 1: The exclusive story of Pool's hidden war






    “Life has to be rebuilt”
    Razed villages and empty fields await Congo-Brazzaville’s displaced
  • UPDATED: Congo-Brazzaville’s hidden war

    The shells of burnt-out vehicles rust in the rain and crumbling houses poke out through the overgrown brush. The village of Soumouna in Congo-Brazzaville’s southern Pool region lies empty and guarded by soldiers, but there’s undeniable evidence of what happened here 20 months ago.

    Isma Nkodia, 25, said she was passing through the village at four in the afternoon when government helicopters laid it to waste.

    At first she thought the attack would be over quickly: just as soon as the pilots had found and destroyed the residence of the rebel leader they were hunting.

    But an hour later Nkodia still lay crouched in the forest fearing death as the bombs kept falling and the village she had known since childhood turned into dust and rubble.

    “They wanted to destroy everything,” she said.

    It’s a scene of devastation that can be found in village after village across the Pool region, where a hidden conflict between the government and a previously dormant militia called the Ninjas has left tens of thousands displaced and entire districts deserted.

    A neglected crisis

    IRIN was granted rare access to the region, and was able to document the toll of the 20-month conflict. The violence here has played out with little international attention, unlike the humanitarian “mega-crisis” in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

    The conflict dates back to March 2016 presidential elections won by Denis Sassou Nguesso, who has ruled Congo-Brazzaville for all but five years since 1979.

    His victory, which was marred by allegations of fraud, followed a heavily contested constitutional referendum a year earlier that removed term and age constraints that would have prevented the now 74-year-old from standing.

    On the morning of the 2016 election results, with tensions high, a series of attacks were carried out in the capital, Brazzaville. Government, police, and military buildings were set alight in opposition strongholds and 17 people were killed, including three police officers.

    The government blamed the attacks on a former militia group called the Ninjas, which had fought against Sassou Nguesso during civil wars in the 1990s and 2000s, but had largely demobilised.

    The group’s leader, Frédéric Bintsamou, better known as Pastor Ntumi, denied responsibility. But the following day the government began major military operations against Ntumi and remnants of the group, whose fighters had been based in the forests of Pool, to the west of Brazzaville.

    Sealed off from the press and human rights organisations, the operation in Pool has received little media coverage. But in advance of a ceasefire agreement between Ntumi and the government – signed in December – IRIN spent three weeks in the country and obtained* exclusive satellite data that, combined, captures the full extent of the government's offensive in Pool and the full cost on civilians.



    Scorched-earth tactics

    The most visible consequence of the crisis in Pool is the complete absence of people, in a region that was regarded as Congo’s breadbasket. On the 60-kilometre highway from Brazzaville to Kinkala, the regional capital, IRIN passed just 10 civilian vehicles. Village after village lay empty, most cordoned off by army checkpoints.

    While the authorities claim to have conducted a “targeted” offensive against the Ninjas, IRIN found clear evidence of scorched-earth tactics.

    In Soumouna, the first village to be bombed, back in April 2016, witnesses said government helicopters indiscriminately targeted the civilian population.

    Jidele Lounguissa, 25, said helicopters rocketed Ntumi’s large compound, before “bombing the entire village”. She said she knew of five civilians killed during the attack, which she escaped from by hiding in the forest with her son, who was born the day before.                               

    “I was afraid he was going to be killed,” she said.

    Isma Nkodia said her 50-year-old friend, Adele, was hit by a bomb near Ntumi’s house, where she had gone to purchase traditional medicine.

    “Many people died inside their homes,” Nkodia said. “When it was over, I saw houses and cars badly burnt, schools completely destroyed and trees that had collapsed.”

    While former Ninja combatants have lived in Soumouna for many years, Nkodia and Lounguissa both said none were present during the raid.

    Satellite images obtained* by IRIN confirm Nkodia and Lounguissa's accounts. The data demonstrates that much of Samouna, 86 structures, was destroyed between late February and May 2016 —  a period that coincides with the army’s attacks. Satellite data also shows houses were destroyed in Kidamaba Goueri (8), Mayama (7) and Malengo (4), although clouds obscured part of the village.                             

    “There were no Ninjas,” said Nkodia. “Just civilians”.

    “People eat what they can find in the forest”

    Several residents told IRIN that nearby villages that were spared the brunt of the air assault were later pillaged by ground troops.

    Augustin Loufoua, 51, fled from a village called Vula in September 2016 when he heard helicopters firing into the forest several kilometres down the road. When he returned to the village a few months later, he said, “houses had collapsed, bricks had been smashed, doors kicked in, and everything in our households had been taken”.

    “I don’t understand why the soldiers did this,” he said from a camp for displaced people located outside a church in Kinkala. “Before we had Ninjas, but they left the village a long time ago.”


    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    In Pool’s northern districts, along the railway line connecting Brazzaville to the port of Pointe-Noire, towns and villages have been sealed off by military free-fire zones. Many residents have not been allowed to leave the area – where Ninjas are suspected of hiding – since the crisis began.

    Last September, the NGO Caritas distributed food to a village called Madzia via military helicopter, but otherwise there has been “no humanitarian access” to this part of the region, said Alain Moukouri, secretary-general of Caritas in the Republic of Congo.

    “People eat what they can find in the forest,” he said.


    Meanwhile, in villages across Pool, young men have been arrested and accused of being Ninjas on the basis of physical appearance.

    “It can be dreadlocks, tattoos on their arms, a torn shirt, even a strange face,” said Monica Ngalula, who works for the Congolese Observatory of Human Rights.

    Thérèse Matounga’s son, Francie Nkouka, has been missing since October 2016, when he was arrested by soldiers in the village of Loumou. The 24-year-old truck driver had been socialising at a friend’s house in a nearby village when he returned to find military helicopters and soldiers on the ground.

    He ran to his brother’s house nearby but attracted the attention of soldiers. They began searching through the house and found an old purple scarf – a colour associated with Ninjas. It belonged to his brother, who used to be part of the group but had demobilised in 1998. Nkouka protested his innocence but was put on a military helicopter and never seen again.

    “My son was a serious man,” said Matounga, 65. “He had no ties with Ninjas.”

    Between April and September 2017, the United Nations Population Fund documented 110 cases of rape by “men in uniform”. This could refer to rebels or government forces, but IRIN understands the vast majority were perpetrated by soldiers.

    “Violence against women is the hidden part of a hidden crisis,” said UNFPA representative Barbara Laurenceau.

    Government spokesman Thierry Moungalla did not respond to multiple messages seeking comment.

    Return of the Ninjas

    The Ninjas emerged from the upheaval of the early 1990s when the country’s first multi-party elections took place after 13 years of rule by Sassou Nguesso’s Marxist-Leninist Congolese Labour Party. Despite demobilisation attempts, they never really went away, remaining in unplacated opposition to Sassou Nguesso.

    Very little is known about how they are structured and operate, and how much real control Ntumi exerts at the local level. Bereft of information, the international community has termed them, “armed elements”. To the government they are simply “terrorists”.

    Ntumi has consistently denied responsibility for the 2016 election attack in Brazzaville and many Congolese and foreign diplomatic officials believe him.

    With protests building through 2015 and 2016, many observers say the government anticipated a popular uprising and sought to pre-emptively crush dissent. Ntumi’s Ninjas were the perfect pretext; Pool was the perfect location.

    “People believe the government lost the presidential election and needed to create a mass security alert to prevent resistance,” a diplomatic source who asked not be named told IRIN.

    Whether or not the Ninjas were responsible for the Brazzaville attack, after the first bombings in Pool a new insurgency quickly took shape.

    “Everything started when soldiers began killing some of the population,” said a self-styled Ninja colonel from the village of Yangi, who said his group of 20 previously dormant Ninjas were taking orders from Ntumi. “That is why we started to fight.”

    Ninjas have since: destroyed bridges on the rail line between Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire, halting trade through the region; killed an unknown number of soldiers; and stepped up attacks on civilians in ambushes along the main roads to the capital.

    Anicet Oungoula, 29, was part of an ambulance crew recently attacked by Ninjas near Kinkala. The group was attempting to rescue passengers from a bus that had been ambushed by Ninjas earlier in the day.

    When they arrived on the scene, he said the fighters began shooting at the ambulance, wounding the driver and sending the vehicle into a ditch. A soldier on board crawled out and was executed on the spot. A wounded man lying on a stretcher inside was killed by a Molotov cocktail the Ninjas tossed inside.

    “I am still traumatised,” Oungoula said. “I think about it every day.”

    Displaced and forgotten

    Despite huge suffering, for over a year the government refused to recognise the existence of the crisis, leaving humanitarian organisations isolated and unable to publicly appeal for funds. That finally changed in July last year when the government signed a letter requesting international assistance.

    By that stage 80,000 people had been forced to flee their homes and 138,000 people in a country of just 4.5 million were in need of humanitarian assistance.

    In one assessment by the World Food Programme, more than 15 percent of children in Pool were found to be suffering from acute malnutrition. Thirty children on the brink of death were brought to Brazzaville for treatment, but three of them died.

    “People like to talk about the millions [of people suffering] in Kasai [a conflict-torn province in the DRC], but if you look at the proportion here, we had a lot more people in need,” said Anthony Ohemeng-Boamah, the UN’s resident coordinator in the Republic of Congo.

    While aid groups have now reached tens of thousands of people, conditions remain challenging for thousands more displaced living with host families, in church grounds, and in local authority buildings.

    At a run-down Catholic church in Loutété, a town just outside Pool, displaced people complained of hunger and sickness. Sitting in a dark, leaky room, 52-year-old Ermeline Kouelolo said her family had not eaten in two and a half days. Others said they had not eaten in three.

    Kouelolo fled to Loutété, which is now hosting 4,000 displaced people, in November 2016 when soldiers in armoured vehicles arrived in her village, Loulombo. Since then, her family of five has been sleeping in a small tent with no mattress, no electricity, and no source of light. Every day, she said, her youngest child, a six-year-old girl, gets thinner and thinner.


    A woman and a child stand in front of a UNHCR tent in the rain facing the camera
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    With donors preoccupied by crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Central African Republic, raising funds for people in need in Pool has proved challenging.

    “You walk into some of the embassies in Kinshasa [the capital of the DRC] and they don’t even know what is happening,” said a senior humanitarian source in Brazzaville who asked not to be named. “Donors to the central Africa humanitarian network are overstretched.”                                         

    “It is a national crisis not a local one”

    The government’s ability to assist people in Pool has also been hampered by the country’s economic crisis. Congo-Brazzaville is one of the largest oil producers in the region, but declining prices for global crude have drained state funds while public debt has risen to 110 percent of GDP.

    The closure of the Brazzaville to Pointe-Noire rail line has made a bad situation even worse, with goods now transported to the capital in long, cumbersome convoys under military escort.

    While the ceasefire announcement has raised hope that the economic and humanitarian situation may improve in Pool, the root causes of the conflict remain largely unaddressed.

    “The Pool conflict is a consequence of the post-electoral crisis in Congo,” said Clement Mierassa, a leading opposition politician. “It is a national crisis not a local one.”

    Back in Loutété, heavy rain turns the grounds of the church into mud as Kouelolo prepares for another night sleeping in a tent. It is the second occasion she has been displaced in the past two decades. For others, it is the third or fourth. This time, she says she will only return home if two conditions are met: “The soldiers must leave and the Ninjas must leave.”

    *This story was updated on Monday 18 June 2018 with satellite footage obtained by Emmanuel Freudenthal.


    Read more in Part 2: Civilians return to razed villages and a shaky peace




    IRIN documents the humanitarian toll of a little-known 20-month conflict
    UPDATED: Congo-Brazzaville’s hidden war
    This story was updated on Monday 18 June 2018 with satellite footage obtained by Emmanuel Freudenthal.
    Conflict erupted after disputed March 2016 elections
    Government cracked down on a former militia called the Ninjas
    IRIN gained exclusive access to the conflict zone in the southern Pool region
    Government helicopters bombed village after village that now lie empty
    Next-to-no humanitarian access has been granted to the region
    Crisis has been overshadowed by bigger regional emergencies

Support our work

Donate now