FADA N’GOURMA, Burkina Faso (AP) — Huddled on the floor in a dimly lit room, one by one the five men displayed wounds they say were inflicted by government soldiers armed with wooden planks, knives and electric cables.
A 30-year-old recounted how a soldier held a cigarette lighter to his face while holding his head to the ground with a boot.
“The soldiers said if you don’t tell us where the jihadists are we’ll kill you,” said the man, who like the others spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. “I was screaming and crying and begging him not to burn me.”
Of the dozen men taken from Burkina Faso’s eastern town of Tawalbougou in late June on suspicion of supporting Islamic extremist rebels, only five survived, they said. One man died from the beatings and six others were shot and killed, said the survivors. Their families were too afraid to collect their bodies, they said.
Some of the survivors can barely speak after the trauma, but all maintain they had no affiliation with the Islamic extremists who have rapidly destabilized Burkina Faso over the past few years.
Such accusations of extrajudicial killings, torture and unlawful detention by Burkina Faso’s military are mounting, as the ill-equipped and under-trained army scrambles to stem the spread of jihadist violence that’s ravaging the country. As attacks linked to Islamic militants increase, so does the army’s targeting of civilians perceived to support them, charge rights groups.
Government officials deny that its forces are carrying out the abuse and say it places great emphasis on human rights and is conducting investigations into other alleged abuses by security personnel.
The allegations of rights abuses highlight the instability caused by the spread of extremist violence in Burkina Faso and the surrounding countries of West Africa’s Sahel region. Similar extremist violence in neighboring Mali and that government’s lack of success in controlling it is blamed for contributing to the coup there last week.
Many of the alleged victims of army abuse in Burkina Faso, like the five interviewed by AP, come from the Peuhl ethnic group, also known as the Fulani.
Rights groups say the army is tarnishing its reputation and eroding trust among a desperate population that is facing attacks on multiple fronts.
“Allegations of abuse by the security forces and pro-government militias are trending dangerously up. Every time a suspect last seen in their custody winds up dead along a path or in a cell, confidence in the state decreases and the chance that angry men will support the jihadists increases,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
During the first seven months of this year, 288 civilians were killed by government forces, more than a quarter of the total civilian deaths caused by violence, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which collects and analyzes conflict information.
The trend is specifically jarring in Burkina Faso’s east, where the number of civilians killed by government forces has swelled by almost nine times so far this year compared to the second half of last year, according to the ACLED data.
The men who spoke with the AP in Fada N’gourma town said they were abducted from their homes by government soldiers backed by volunteer fighters from the local area. The military forces put the men into trucks and drove them around for hours while torturing them, the men told AP.
The incident comes on the heels of a Human Rights Watch report last month that said evidence suggested the army was responsible for the large scale executions of 180 people in the country’s north found in mass graves. The majority of the victims in the graves were also ethnic Peuhl herders.
The government did not respond to requests by the AP seeking comment about the alleged attacks in June. The ministry of defense has previously suggested such killings could have been carried out by groups using stolen army uniforms and equipment.
Foreign embassy cables from June seen by the AP say that President Roch Marc Christian Kabore appeared defensive when questioned about the abuses. The president said security forces were having a hard time finding “real terrorists” who infiltrate communities.
In June, jihadists disguised in burqas killed seven people in a village not far from Fada N’Gourma, said a high-ranking army officer who did not want to be named. Sometimes the jihadists pretend to be cattle or food traders so they can spy, he said on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Civilians trying to survive in the east say they’re caught between government and volunteer brutality, as well as jihadist attacks.
Ousmane Bande lost his son in the June attacks with government soldiers, his 17-year-old nephew was killed days later at a checkpoint manned by volunteers, not far from Fada N’gourma. Wrapping his prayer beads around his fingers, he said it’s hard to see his nine grandchildren now have to grow up without a father.
“I’m suffering,” he said. “The government needs to find a way to bring back peace.”