Boulkessi, once a large and thriving village in central Mali, is deserted – its orange, mud-brick houses now standing empty.
Malian soldiers are the only people who live there, entrenched in a fortress of sandbags on the outskirts of the village. Sent to defend Boulkessi from jihadist insurgents, they are the main reasons the village has been abandoned, according to former residents.
At a glance: Europe’s self-defeating military alliance in the Sahel
- The Malian army is accused of killing more civilians last year than the jihadist insurgents it is supposed to be battling.
- The EU and France continue to provide the army with training and equipment support worth millions of euros each year.
- The EU has no systematic vetting mechanism to check whether the units it is training have committed rights violations.
- The New Humanitarian was able to trace an elite unit that had received EU training, but also had a history of abuse against civilians.
- The jihadists are expanding their area of control, with recruitment driven in part by anger over the rights violations committed by the army.
Since 2018, the European-backed army has been responsible for the deaths of 153 civilians within just a 100-kilometre radius of the Boulkessi base, according to data collected by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a conflict monitoring group.
Tidiani Diallo, 18, was in Boulkessi on 19 May 2018 when Malian soldiers executed 12 villagers in revenge for the death of one of their comrades, an event documented by the UN. He remembers the soldiers saying: “We told you that if one of ours dies, we’ll kill 20 of you. You were lucky it was only 12 this time.”
Diallo now lives in a half-finished house in Sevaré, 200 kilometres from Boulkessi. He misses his home, but feels it is still far too dangerous to return to a region where the civilian population is caught between the jihadists, community self-defence groups, and the army.
More than 10,000 people have been killed in the violence in Mali since the conflict began in 2012, according to ACLED, with over 350,000 people currently displaced.
Last year, the Malian armed forces (Forces Armées Maliennes, or FAMa) killed more civilians than the jihadists, according to ACLED data. Earlier this month, the UN’s expert on human rights in Mali condemned FAMa’s violence and urged the authorities to “give top priority to addressing the troubling issue of impunity”.
Yet, despite the slew of well-documented cases of rights violations by FAMa, European governments still provide them with military training, equipment, and logistical support worth millions of euros each year.
No mechanisms appear to be in place to prevent EU-funded training and equipment from contributing to rights abuses, a nine-month investigation by The New Humanitarian has found – based on interviews with Malian and EU officials, military personnel, and human rights advocates; as well as a review of documents and the tracking of military units on social media.
Soldiers on training courses appear not to be vetted for any previous involvement in civilian abuses; there’s no systematic tracking of whether trainees and their units go on to commit atrocities after graduation or if the military equipment supplied by European governments is used to violate international law.
The net result, analysts argue, is that Mali has an army – trained and financed by the EU and France – whose extrajudicial killings and human rights violations are driving the same radicalisation and extremism it is supposed to be combatting.
In response to questions from The New Humanitarian, Brigadier General Fernando Luis Gracia Herreiz, then-commander of the European Training Mission to Mali (EUTM) – which conducts all of FAMa’s training for the EU – said in April that putting a human rights monitoring system in place was not part of its mandate.
Neither EUTM nor the French army answered The New Humanitarian’s specific questions regarding the apparent lack of vetting and post-training monitoring of FAMa soldiers.
“These individuals are selected by FAMa,” an EUTM spokesperson said in an email. “We receive the unit to train, and we ‘name’ it according to EUTM order (normally first platoon of 2020, or second company of 2020). We do not know what platoon, or company, or from what regiment is attending this course, this information is handled by FAMa.”
In a statement to The New Humanitarian, the EUTM said courses on humanitarian law were part of its curriculum, “exactly to prevent... trained soldiers [being] engaged in cases of human rights violations”. But the EUTM is not liable for the behaviour of FAMa personnel once deployed, as “we CANNOT accompany the troops into operation[s]”, it added.
By combining the data of civilian killings with the GPS location of FAMa units, The New Humanitarian tried to identify which units were regularly near human rights violations.
The lack of clear information on military deployments made this difficult. But the Boulkessi area stood out as a particular hotspot. Around a third of civilians killed in Mali since 2018 died within a 100-kilometre radius of the Boulkessi base – where a number of FAMa units have been deployed.
The Security Force Monitor data was able to identify the 33rd Regiment as having been based there – a unit with a history of rights violations. The next step was to confirm whether it had been trained by the EUTM.
Although the EUTM likely trained most of the Malian army, it wasn’t easy to determine which specific units or soldiers, as the EUTM does not keep track. But by combing through the EUTM’s Facebook posts, The New Humanitarian was able to establish that the regiment had received training in 2016 and 2017.
While the Boulkessi area is the worst example of the violence Malaians suffer at the hands of their soldiers, it is by no means unique: According to the ACLED data, there are many other Boulkessis.
The French Ministry of Armed Forces told The New Humanitarian it also condemns all rights abuses. In a statement, the ministry noted such conduct “risks playing into the hands of terrorists”, but it also reiterated its trust in its “Malian brothers in arms and the military command to apply the law of armed conflicts”.
A resolution by the EU parliament last year called for all European military training missions to be “redefined”. That would include the establishment of a human rights monitoring system, and for EU instructors to supervise “on the ground” soldiers who have completed training. But the EUTM is not bound by the resolution.
“Why isn't a human rights monitoring system included in this EUTM?” Özlem Demirel, an EU parliamentarian with The Left, a German political party, asked in an interview with The New Humanitarian. “How could it be that it is not included?”
A human rights “due diligence” risk-assessment is required by the UN prior to providing any training support to non-UN military forces. And, as an example of best practice, the Leahy Law in the United States, forbids any military assistance going to a foreign military where there is credible information of rights abuse.
Since 2013, the EUTM says it has trained 15,000 FAMa personnel – the force is estimated at 18,000-strong (including the air force and navy), with an army component of only about 13,000. But the EUTM doesn’t know if it has trained the same soldiers multiple times.
Each year, the EU spends around 30 million euros to train FAMa personnel, a figure that doesn’t include the salaries of the over 800 staff and instructors involved – these salaries are paid by the contributing countries.
Despite the military assistance, FAMa has been steadily losing ground to al-Qaeda and so-called Islamic State-affiliated insurgents, which are not only active in the north and centre of the country, but increasingly in the south as well.
The insurgency has taken a heavy toll on an under-equipped army. At least 800 FAMa soldiers have lost their lives since the beginning of the conflict in 2012 – although the figure could be higher as incidents are not always documented. Whole garrisons have been overrun, and units are sometimes not paid for months, allegedly as a result of corruption.
The EU’s support, “doesn’t protect us, doesn’t help us” because funds to the army are so routinely embezzled, said Clément Dembélé, a Malian anti-corruption activist and politician. “[Yet, the EU] continues to pay for training, to pay for equipment, to provide fuel.”
With last month’s announcement by France that it will drastically reduce its military presence in the region, parallels are already being drawn with Afghanistan, where billions of dollars were spent to prop up a corrupt military, which collapsed once the US shield was withdrawn.
“We’ve known for a long time that Mali could be the second Afghanistan,” Demirel told The New Humanitarian. “We have to question this whole [Mali] mission because we know that the Malian army is part of a corrupt system.”
Although EUTM statistics suggest it may have trained a good portion of the Malian army, linking specific abuses to EU-trained personnel is difficult.
Through a rare posting on the EUTM’s Facebook page, The New Humanitarian traced one unit the EU had trained in 2016 and 2017 – the elite 33rd Para-Commando Regiment, known as the Red Berets.
Less than a year prior to arriving at the EUTM’s training school in Koulikoro, the regiment had been implicated in the overnight detention and torture of two men* in a military base in Gao, central Mali, a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged.
The victims told the rights group they had been "hogtied" – bound by their hands and feet – with electric wire so tightly the cords cut into their skin. They were also beaten and kicked and denied water to drink.
Herreiz, until recently commander of the EUTM mission, told The New Humanitarian in Bamako: “I must trust in the Malian armed forces’ professionalism, I can’t work with Malians (soldiers) thinking these guys are killers.”
In addition to FAMa’s troubling human rights record, its officers have also launched two coups in the past year. In August 2020, soldiers overthrew the elected government and handed power to a retired military officer and former minister of defence, Bah Ndaw. In May this year, Ndaw was replaced by Colonel Assimi Goïta, who led the initial coup.
“We have an army that has completely unravelled; an army that’s completely disorientated; an army that’s under-equipped, and that is badly trained,” Dembélé, the anti-corruption activist, told The New Humanitarian.
A difficult war
The conflict in Mali began in 2012 with a rebellion by ethnic Tuareg in the north of the country, which jihadist groups quickly took over. Insecurity has spread to the central regions, the result of competition between farming communities and pastoral Fulani – which the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM, the Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims) has skillfully exploited.
The Macina Liberation Front, part of the JNIM umbrella, makes explicit appeals to Fulani solidarity. As a result of that perceived link, the community has borne the brunt of extrajudicial killings by the army and self-defence militias.
“The FAMa think that all Fulani are complicit with the jihadists,” said Hamadoun Dicko, president of the Tabital Pulaaku Youth Association, a civil society organisation that defends Fulani interests. “They don’t distinguish between [Fulani who may support the militants and those that don’t].”
The majority of jihadists in the central region are Fulani – or speak Fulfulde, the Fulani language. But, said Dicko, Fulani have also been their victims: When JNIM first arrived, around 2015, they exerted control by killing Fulani community leaders.
“[As a result], many people didn’t like them then, but with all the abuses [by the army], many young men joined the jihadists for revenge… or to get weapons for protection,” Dicko told The New Humanitarian.
Anger over state corruption, rights violations and perceived marginalisation by the government in Bamako are clear drivers of recruitment, according to researchers – especially among the Fulani community.
Violations by FAMa are especially prevalent in central Mali, with the area around the Boulkessi military base a noticeable hotspot, according to ACLED data.
The base has hosted several Malian units, including the 33rd Para-Commando regiment, which received EUTM training. The French army helped fortify it in 2019 and has also provided logistical support to FAMa personnel stationed there, including airdrops.
In January, French Colonel Jean-Baptiste Vouilloux visited the Boulkessi base as the commander of Eclipse – a joint operation with FAMa. Vouilloux told The New Humanitarian how French soldiers had trained and fought alongside 400 Malian soldiers for a month.
“It was a success, because I was dealing with Malian soldiers who were combative, who wanted to win,” he explained. “It’s important in combat. I dealt with Malian soldiers who were disciplined.”
He also offered this prediction: “[The enemy] will lose [one day] because it’ll lose the support of the population. I’m sure of that… They are predators who bully the population.”
But around the time Vouilloux was in Boulkessi, French and Malian soldiers were involved in a joint cordon-and-search operation in Kobou village – 25 kilometres from the base – that led to three extrajudicial killings, according to a HRW report.
During the operation, Malian soldiers arrested four men, with witnesses describing how they were thrown into Malian military vehicles “like bags of rice”. A day later, two of the men were found dead 10 kilometres away. A third was never seen again, while the fourth was freed after two weeks in military detention.
The Malian army did not respond to a request for comment by The New Humanitarian on the allegations, but wrote to HRW stating that an investigation had been opened. The French Ministry of the Armed Forces referred to the incident in a statement to The New Humanitarian as “the death of three prisoners belonging to a terrorist armed group”.
But the statement didn’t explain how FAMa had determined the men were terrorists. “Even if these people were card-carrying members of JNIM or the Islamic state, they still have the right to a fair trial,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at HRW.
“We’ve been disappointed by the lack of progress on numerous other investigations into alleged abuses by the Malian security forces,” she told The New Humanitarian.
Vouilloux acknowledged he was in charge of the overall mission. “My general staff conceives tactical operations on the ground,” he said. “Malian and French units are subordinate to me… We act together.”
That “command responsibility” makes him potentially accountable for the human rights violations of those units. “If you are a commander and the people are under your effective control, then you may be responsible for crimes that they commit,” explained Dapo Akande, a lawyer and professor of international law at the University of Oxford.
“If you know that they are doing it – or you should have known that they're doing it – then you are responsible if you have not taken necessary steps within your power to prevent or put an end to those crimes,” Akande told The New Humanitarian.
Vouilloux did not personally respond to further questions sent in writing regarding his accountability under international law. But the French Ministry of Armed Forces replied in an email to The New Humanitarian that Vouilloux “assigned tasks to the various elements of these forces participating in the operation”, and “was responsible for the coordination of all elements, French and Malian”. Nevertheless, the ministry said, he had “no direct authority over the units of the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) operating in the field, who reported to their corps commander”.
From Barkhane to G5
In July, French President Emmanuel Macron ordered the drawdown of French troops from Mali. France is also pushing other European armies to deploy their own soldiers in the Sahel as part of the Takuba Task Force, a 13-country European alliance launched last year. Greater responsibility will now be shouldered by the G5 Sahel – a military alliance of five countries from the region.
But FAMa isn’t the only military grouping in the G5 coalition with a poor rights record. The armed forces of neighbouring Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad have also been accused of abuses. Last year, 50 civilians were killed by Burkinabe troops operating as part of the G5 in Boulkessi.
The EU has provided considerable support to the G5 – including military vehicles, communications gear, and funding to cover the per diems of its soldiers that cost millions of euros each year alone. Its intervention in the Sahel has been shaped by the twin goals of stopping terrorism and controlling migration to Europe, according to analysts.
Providing support to forces involved in human rights violations – and in particular supplying armoured vehicles – could break international law on weapons transfers, said Akande.
There is an internationally recognised obligation not to supply weapons “if those arms would be used – or could be used – to commit… violations of international law”, Akande noted. Armoured vehicles “would fall within the definition” of arms, he added.
On 3 June 2020, Malian soldiers killed 15 civilians in a village close to Boulkessi – another atrocity documented by the UN. Hamadoun Diallo, a young Fulani man, was asked to help recover the bodies of the people killed – including his own uncle.
As he travelled on the back of a motorbike to the village, he saw armoured personnel carriers as part of a large FAMa convoy heading back to the Boulkessi base. Based on Diallo’s description and photos obtained by The New Humanitarian of military vehicles operating in and around Boulkessi, they were likely French ACMAT VLRAs, produced by Renault.
It’s unclear whether the vehicles seen were purchased by the Malian military or supplied by the EU. It is a type of vehicle that the EU has donated to FAMa and the G5 in the past.
Diallo believes French and European support to FAMa is not only misguided but also misplaced.
“I think it is the civilians who need support, not the FAMa,” he told The New Humanitarian. “Because, with that support, the army might say that they help the civilians, but they don’t. They never have.”
*An earlier version of this article gave an incorrect number of the victims of an incident of alleged torture involving the 33rd Para-Commando regiment. It originally said there had been 18 vicitims. The figure has been amended. This article was updated on 26 August 2021.
This investigation was supported by a grant from the Investigative Journalism for Europe (IJ4EU) fund.
Additional research by Logan Williams. Collaboration with Bellingcat and Security Force Monitor.
Edited by Obi Anyadike.
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