Both al-Qaeda and Islamic State encourage local Fulani herders to wage a campaign of ethnic cleansing against their Dogon neighbours
Jihadists in Mali are stirring up bouts of savage inter-ethnic bloodletting in their bid to regain their grip on the west African state, human rights campaigners have warned.
The country’s picturesque Mopti region – once one of west Africa’s top backpacking destinations – has become a bloodbath in the last year as Islamic militants stoke centuries-old tensions between its main ethnic groups.
Both al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have been encouraging local Fulani herders, known in Mali as Peuhl, to wage a campaign of ethnic cleansing against their Dogon neighbours.
The Dogon, who are mainly settled farmers, have responded by setting up their own self-defence militias, one of which massacred more than 150 Peuhl civilians in a revenge attack last March.
A new report by Human Rights Watch says that at least 450 people died in tit-for-tat violence last year alone, with up to 50 villages suffering assaults by gangs armed with machine guns and machetes.
Survivors have spoken of children as young as five being murdered, and of seeing teenagers have their hands chopped off.
The violence in Mali’s central belt comes seven years after France, the former colonial power, dispatched troops to kick out al-Qaeda militants who seized control of the country’s north.
Since then, a force of some 4,500 French troops, backed by 13,000 UN peacekeepers, has been struggling to re-establish order.
The last two years have seen the militants resurge after forming a new alliance called the Group for Support of Islam and Muslims, known by its local abbreviation JNIM.
Also gaining a foothold is a cell calling itself Islamic State in the Greater Sahara, which killed four US special forces soldiers in neighbouring Niger in 2017.
JNIM’s leader is Amadou Kouffa, a firebrand Peuhl preacher who was born in the Mopti region. In more peaceful times, the area was a popular adventure tourism destination, with backpackers using it as a base from which to go trekking in the nearby Dogon Valley.
However, tensions have long simmered between the Peuhl and Dogon over access to land and water, which Mr Kouffa’ has exploited through radio sermons urging the “Peuhl nation” to rise up.
With its own security forces overstretched, Mali’s government allowed the Dogon to form village self-defence militias, made up of local traditional hunters.
They have now been carrying out atrocities of their own, including last March’s attack at Ogossagou, a Peuhl village that was suspected of harbouring militants. One young mother in Ogossagou told Human Rights Watch’s researchers that the militiamen set her house ablaze and then murdered her five year old son.
“I wasn’t going to move, but they threw a burning object through the window that set the house alight,” she said. “I grabbed my children and ran, but the armed men ripped them from my arms – they shot my little boy.”
A relative of a village elder, who lost 47 members of his extended family, added: “I heard them saying in Dogon, “Kill them! We have to put an end to the Peuhl”.
Several bodies of the massacre were later found dumped in the village well, along with a woman and young boy who turned out to have survived.
Elsewhere, corpses were found with both hands cut off. In a tit-for-tat attack in June, armed Peuhl men massacred 35 Dogon civilians in June in the village of Sobane-Da.
Describing a family who were burned a live in a blaze there, a witness said: “Their charred bodies were entwined, clutching each other, like it was their last moment together.”
Despite the UN describing the Ogossagou attack as potential “crime against humanity”, the hunting militia accused of carrying it out has refused orders from the Malian government to disarm.
Youssouf Toloba, who heads the “Hunters Who Trust in God” militia, said last year that he would only do if the authorities could demonstrate that they could protect Dogon villages properly.
The militia, which is said to have grown to some 5,000 fighters, has since been accused of carrying out further atrocities.
“Armed groups are killing, maiming, and terrorizing communities throughout central Mali with no apparent fear of being held to account,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch and author of the report.
“The human toll in shattered lives is mounting as the deadly cycles of violence and revenge continue.”
She added that the true scale of atrocities was possibly far greater than documented, as many killings took place in remote villages with no surviving witnesses.
The bloodshed in Mali is part of a wider wave of extremist violence now destabilising the entire Sahel region, a vast and impoverished strip of semi-arid terrain running south of the Sahara.
Militants in Mali have also moved into neighbouring Burkina Faso, killing at least 250 people there in 2018 alone. This summer, around 250 British troops are due to deploy to assist the UN mission in Mali, where more than 200 peacekeepers have already died in insurgent attacks.
The long-term viability of Western military operations across the Sahel has been cast into doubt over plans by President Donald Trump to scale down America’s troop and drone deployments in the region.