© Amnesty International

Burkina Faso:  Responsibility of the army indicated in Karma massacre

Burkina Faso’s authorities must take immediate steps to end attacks on civilians in the context of the armed conflict and conduct an impartial and independent investigation into the crimes that occurred on 20 April in Karma, which could amount to war crimes.

The Karma massacre is yet another example of violence against civilians in the conflict in Burkina Faso. After the killings in Nouna on 30 December and the attack on the displaced persons’ site at La Ferme in Ouahigouya on 13 February, the army has once again been found responsible for these attacks and killings, which deliberately targeted civilians. Such attacks on civilians must be halted immediately.

Samira Daoud, Director of Amnesty International's West and Central Africa office

On 20 April, in Karma, a village 15 km from Ouahigouya in the north of the country, elements of the Burkinabe army entered the village at 7.30 in the morning, in what villagers believed to be a routine patrol. The soldiers rounded the inhabitants up, collected their identity documents, and then shot the villagers at point-blank range, killing at least 147 people. The attack lasted from 7.30 in the morning until 2 in the afternoon.

Amnesty International was able to gather testimonies from survivors and local sources based in Ouahigouya. These indicate the responsibility of the 3rd Battalion of the Rapid Intervention Brigade (BIR) in the killings.

At a press conference of Karma residents on 29 April, the death toll from the massacre was estimated at 147 people, including 45 children. Victims were noted to have come from the neighbourhoods of Ipaala, Moygayiri, Saayiri, Seygayiri, Rikin, Kassomrikin, Maringo and Rokoudin in the village.

Under international humanitarian law, all parties to an armed conflict must systematically distinguish between civilians and combatants and are prohibited from carrying out attacks on the civilian population and extrajudicial executions. Serious violations of the Geneva Conventions amount to war crimes.

According to survivors interviewed by Amnesty International, the military accused the residents of Karma of failing to denounce elements of armed groups that had allegedly passed through the village to attack army and Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland (VDP) positions in the nearby village of Aourema.

Hassane*, a relative of a number of the Karma victims, testifies:

“We didn’t know what was going on. When the army came in the morning of Thursday 20 April, at 7.30 am, residents naturally came out to welcome them and to gather round them. These people were dressed in black uniforms, others in greenish fatigues, some had helmets, others were hooded, and they were in several pickups and on motorcycles. Some spoke in Dioula, others in Mooré. They first asked the villagers for their national identity cards and then they started shooting at them.”

“We’re going to treat you like the terrorists do.”

One survivor of the attack, who was injured and treated in Ouahigouya, gave the following detailed account:

“When they [the military] arrived, they asked to check our IDs. Then they told us to bring out the women and children so that they could check theirs too. They gathered us together to speak to us. They asked us why we were still in the village, when surrounding villages such as Youba and Aourema were deserted. We said that it was the terrorists who had ordered the inhabitants of Youba and Aourema to leave. They hadn’t given us any such ultimatum, and we didn’t want to leave our land. And they [the military] said, ‘Since you fear the terrorists more than us, we’re going to treat you like the terrorists do.’ (…) They told the men to remove everything they had on them (mobiles, IDs and money), and then they surrounded us and indicated to certain people that they should go to a given place. As we were heading to that place, I slipped into a nearby courtyard, climbed over the wall and ran away.”

Noufou*, a survivor from the Rikin neighbourhood, describes what happened to him: 

“They came to my house to check IDs. They asked me why I hadn’t gone to show my ID at the place where the other villagers were gathered. They shot my brother, a deaf-mute, in the doorway. They took our photos. I also saw the body of the imam of our local mosque in his yard. When they came to check my ID, they asked me why we were still there when the people from the village of Aourema had left.”

After this check, Noufou was taken away with several other villagers to be shot by the military: “When they thought they had killed everyone, they left. But two of them came back to finish off those who hadn’t died. I managed to survive by covering myself with the blood of the bodies that were right next to me. It was the Burkina Faso military that committed this massacre. There was a crest with a human skull on the shoulder of some of the soldiers. They are the ones who came into the village on the big motorcycles.”

The Karma massacre took place five days after an attack on a VDP base in the village of Aourema, attributed to the jihadist group Ansaroul Islam. The pattern of what appears to be a punitive expedition is similar to that of the Nouna killings of December 2022, and to the army raid on the displaced persons’ site of La Ferme in Ouahigouya on 13 February, during which seven minors were killed in the Zondoma military camp, according to an investigation by Libération and AP News.

Amnesty International was able to gather photos of those killed, taken on 25 April after the army had left the village, as well as photos of the injured being treated in Ouahigouya, showing gunshot wounds to the victims.

The military also reportedly burned down several buildings in the village after the massacre. As of 24 April, soldiers were still deployed in the area between Karma and Ouahigouya. These soldiers were blocking access to the village to people from Karma who were living in Ouahigouya, preventing them from burying the victims.

Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR) implicated

Several witnesses told Amnesty International that the military unit that attacked Karma was part of the Third Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR), which had left Ouagadougou to go to Karma. People in the town of Ouahigouya said they had witnessed the movement of this battalion to the Karma area.

Some of these soldiers, in fatigues, were wearing t-shirts with the name of their unit “3rd BIR” clearly visible.

These soldiers were seen around 5.00 am by several locals around the Place de la Nation here in Ouahigouya. People were going to pray on this Ramadan morning. They left the square at dawn on the same day and headed north to where the villages of Karma and Aourema are located.

Kader*, a citizen of Ouahigouya and member of civil society.

“This detachment of soldiers returned to Ouahigouya on Sunday 23 April. Everyone saw them in the city as they left for Ouagadougou this afternoon [24 April],” said Hassane*, a resident of Ouahigouya, originally from Karma.

According to one security observer, “They [the BIR elements] left Ouagadougou with clear and firm instructions. […] But, here, a massacre has been committed with impunity.”

On 22 April, the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the Ouahigouya High Court announced the opening of an investigation to establish the facts and responsibilities behind the Karma attack.

“This investigation must be conducted impartially and independently so that those responsible for war crimes and other serious violations can be brought before the ordinary courts in accordance with fair trial standards,” said Samira Daoud