Ansaroul Islam and other armed groups are enforcing brutal sieges in localities across Burkina Faso committing war crimes and human rights abuses, including killings of civilians, abductions of women and girls, attacks on civilian infrastructure and attacks on supply convoys, resulting in severe humanitarian consequences, Amnesty International said today in a new report.
The report, “Death was slowly creeping on us: Living under siege in Burkina Faso,” also documents how these tactics have prevented residents in besieged areas from farming their land and grazing cattle, as well as limiting their access to health and education, forcing tens of thousands of people to leave their homes.
Ansaroul Islam and other armed groups have committed heinous human rights abuses across Burkina Faso. They have not only enforced sieges across the country, but they have also killed thousands of civilians and destroyed civilian infrastructure, including bridges and water points. Samira Daoud, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa.
“Armed groups have also attacked supply convoys, which has disproportionately affected civilians. One in twelve individuals across the country has been forced to leave their homes.”
Amnesty International estimated that at least 46 locations across Burkina Faso were under siege in July 2023 by armed groups. The tactic, first used in 2019 but a defining feature of the conflict since 2022, is characterized using checkpoints on main exit routes, the laying of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to limit traffic, and occasional attacks against civilians, soldiers, and supply convoys. The sieges have affected an estimated one million people.
The leader of a civil society organization told Amnesty International: “These days, a town or village falls under siege every day. Arbinda has been under siege since 2019. The situation is similar in Gorgadji, Sollé, Mansila and Titao and there are real risks for the inhabitants.”
Ansaroul Islam and other armed groups attacked residents of besieged towns. Such was the case in Madjoari (Kompienga province, Eastern region), a town that has been encircled by Ansaroul Islam since February 2021. On 25 May 2022, armed assailants attacked civilians from Tambarga and Madjoari, trying to flee the sieges and reach Nadiagou, a commune in the Pama department, in Singou, killing at least 50 civilians, all men. Of the fleeing cohort, only four persons (two women, an elderly person, and a child) were spared by the assailants and managed to reach Nadiagou. In January 2023, 66 women, girls, and newborns, were abducted near the besieged village of Liki, in the commune of Arbinda, while they were collecting wild fruits and vegetables, in response to the siege of their commune by Ansaroul Islam.
In several besieged localities, Amnesty International found that members of Ansaroul Islam had prohibited communities from farming or accessing pasturelands for livestock grazing seriously affecting food security and livelihoods.
A 52-year-old internally displaced person (IDP) told Amnesty International: “The terrorists [sic] call us miscreants and prohibit us from farming our land. I couldn’t farm this year  nor access pasturelands for my livestock. At the beginning of the rainy season, they told us in Djibo that no one was allowed to access the farmlands. Besides, they come and take our livestock in the pasturelands without any consequence. Whoever defies their orders runs the risk of being killed by them.”
As of June 2023, 373 health centers had been closed due to the conflict, affecting medical access for 3.5 million people. In the Sahel region, more than 84 health centres were forced to close, limiting healthcare access for 964,000 people.
‘We had to eat wild leaves to survive.’
The sieges have also caused severe economic and humanitarian consequences, including localized inflation in besieged towns due to food shortages. In Djibo, food security has become a serious issue, with residents resorting to eating wild leaves, such as the oulo leaf (Senna obtusifolia), to sustain themselves.
We had to eat wild leaves to survive. Residents would do anything to feed themselves and their families. Sometimes, they would mix the oulo leaves with rice. Recently, as rice became rarer, we had to eat only the oulo leaves. These leaves were for poorer people before the siege, but now they are a common staple and it’s even hard to find them in the wild. An IDP, who fled Djibo after the siege began
A 65-year female IDP who fled Djibo in November 2022 told Amnesty International: “Hunger is rife in Djibo, and the weakest are most exposed. I have gradually lost my sight this year […]”
To enforce the siege, Ansaroul Islam has destroyed civilian structures, including bridges and water infrastructure, such as wells and pipes. Armed fighters destroyed more than 32 water points in Burkina Faso between January and May 2022, with most of the attacks occurring in Djibo, where residents can only access less than 3 litres of water per day for all of their needs, including washing, cleaning, and cooking.
The response from the authorities
The authorities have implemented several measures aimed at restoring security, sometimes with adverse effects on civilians.
For example, the Burkinabè military accompanied by the Vounteers for the Defense of the Homeland (VDPs), an auxiliary unit formed in 2020, attacked the town of Holdé, a few kilometres distant of Djibo, but under the influence of Ansaroul Islam on 9 November 2022. During the attack, a column of vehicles and motorbikes occupied the village and directly attacked civilians, killing at least 49 persons, most of them being women and children, according to survivors of the attack interviewed by Amnesty International.
In response to the deteriorating security situation, the Burkinabe authorities declared a state of emergency in 2019, granting exceptional powers to administrative authorities. They also took measures, such as armed road escorts for the “transportation of fuel, cargo and other hazardous materials” and the prohibition of cash transfers in the Sahel and Eastern regions, hindering humanitarian access and relief to populations in need. The breakdown of trust between authorities and humanitarian actors, symbolized by the expulsion of the UN Resident Humanitarian Coordinator in December 2022, have negatively impacted humanitarian relief in a country where almost 2 million persons have been forced to move from their homes, according to the National Council for Emergency Relief and Rehabilitation (CONASUR).
“Ansaroul Islam and other armed groups must immediately cease all attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure and facilitate unrestricted access for humanitarian relief agencies to assist those affected. The authorities in Burkina Faso must also cease all attacks against civilians and prioritize measures to support healthcare and food security in besieged locations and areas hosting displaced people,” said Samira Daoud.
“In Burkina Faso, the lives of millions are hanging in the balance. The international community must step up its efforts to ensure that those responsible for war crimes and human rights abuses are held accountable. The people of Burkina Faso deserve safety, dignity, and a brighter future.”
Since 2016, Burkina Faso is facing a non-international armed conflict opposing the government forces against Ansaroul Islam, a local armed group affiliated with Al Qaida, and with the Islamic State in the Sahel (ISS). The conflict is part of the broader armed conflict in the Central Sahel, that began with the 2012 conflict in Mali, before spilling over to neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger, and further south to the northern hinges of Benin, Togo, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire.
Armed groups and national armed forces have committed numerous human rights violations against civilians since the start of the conflict in 2016. Thousands of civilian deaths have been recorded, especially in besieged areas. In 2022, the deadliest year on record, 1418 civilians were killed according to the Armed Conflict Location Event Database (ACLED).
*Names removed to protect identities.