OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — From above, the photographs show a stretch of charred land in the middle of the desert and a mass grave covered in dried tree branches, where people living around Bounti, a village in central Mali, said those who had been killed by French airstrikes were buried. On the ground were images of strewn flip-flops; an empty parka with one outstretched arm; a mangled metal teapot and pieces of shrapnel — some designated with serial numbers — placed next to bright yellow evidence markers and metal rulers.
This is the photographic evidence contained in a just-released 36-page report from the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Mali, known as Minusma, who this week confirmed that French forces struck a wedding on Jan. 3, where 100 people were celebrating, killing 22 people — 19 of whom died on the site, all males. The investigation found three of the dead were suspected of being affiliated with an Islamist militant group operating in the region, called Katiba Macina, and that three died on their way to seek medical help.
Minusma is authorized by the UN Security Council to protect civilians in Mali’s continuing conflict, among other roles, and the peacekeeping mission is bound by a Security Council resolution to investigate and document allegations of human-rights violations and abuses committed throughout Mali. This includes all violations connected to international forces, including France’s Operation Barkhane, Minusma peacekeepers and the G5-Sahel force as well as national forces during cross-border military operations. All violations are supposed to be documented and made public in the quarterly reports of Secretary-General António Guterres. Releasing this new report soon after its publication, however, is unusual for the UN, particularly because it relates directly to France, a permanent member of the Security Council.
“The majority of those hit in the strike were civilians who are protected from such attacks by international humanitarian law,” said the report, which recommended that the French and Malian authorities “profoundly examine the processes and precautions they take in preparation for such strikes” to “conduct investigations into possible violations of international humanitarian law and human rights” and compensate the victims.
The French Ministry of Armed Forces, who are in charge of Barkhane, a 5,000-strong anti-insurgency campaign in the Sahel region and based in Chad, maintain that the airstrike targeted only militants. Moreover, the French raised concerns about the “methodology” and findings of the Minusma report and its use of “unverifiable” local witness testimony, according to a statement on the ministry’s website released the same day the report was made public.
“The only concrete sources on which this report is based come from local testimonies,” the statement read. “They are never transcribed, the identity of the witnesses is never specified as the conditions under with these testimonies were taken. It is therefore impossible to distinguish credible sources from possible terrorist sympathizers and individuals under the influence (including the threat) of jihadist groups.” It added that the bombing respected the laws of armed conflict.
The investigation into the airstrikes that took place on Jan. 3 was done over nearly three months by the Human Rights Protection Division in Minusma. The team is comprised of 15 experts from the department and two forensic police from the mission, who visited the site in late February. The report states that the team conducted 115 interviews with individuals and spoke with at least 200 more people in groups and analyzed 150 publications, official communiqués and official declarations and photographic evidence.
Among those interviewed were seven male civilians injured in the attack on the village, whose residents are Fulani, a pastoralist ethnic group who live throughout the Sahel. The wedding unfolded in a semiforested area, beneath a jagged stretch of red cliffs that are part of the spectacular landscape in the Mopti region that once drew thousands of foreign tourists. The Fulani have complained of ethnic profiling in counterterrorism operations in the Sahel region, especially because they have been targeted by Malian security forces; and Dozo ethnic militias are accused of committing large-scale massacres against the Fulani in central Mali.
A Jan. 6 report by Sahelien.com, an independent regional news site, quoted a villager in Bounti saying of the French attack: “There were no women among the victims, as this is a zone held by the jihadists. They do not allow men to gather with women for weddings. So the group of women celebrated 300 meters away. The villagers respect the instructions of the jihadists to avoid reprisals. It was only a group of men and teenagers who were targeted, but the groom is alive.”
The strike infuriated the villagers and prompted calls by local and international groups for investigations, including from the local representative working for the office of the UN high commissioner for human rights and the nongovernmental organization Human Rights Watch.
“The UN investigation of the French airstrike on Bounti raises serious concerns that the attack was unlawfully disproportionate — that the loss of civilian life, which was considerable and could have been far higher, exceeded the military gain of the attack,” Jonathan Pedneault, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, told PassBlue in an email.
The report underlined the growing number of terrorist attacks attributed to jihadist groups such as the Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the greater Sahel, near Douentza, where Bounti is situated, which targeted Minusma forces and killed Malian and French troops at the end of last year. The French bombings in Bounti were part of a joint counterterrorism operation called Eclipse, conducted from Jan. 2 to 20 by Barkhane, the G5 Sahel forces and the Malian military. The Jan. 3 bombing came days after five French soldiers died in Mali.
The findings of the UN investigation were released just days after media reports that Malian officials accused French forces of killing six civilians in an airstrike in Gao, in northeastern Mali. The alleged and confirmed attacks this year by France have occurred after the release of a 336-page report by the UN International Commission of Inquiry, documenting abuses by all sides of the Malian conflict, since it began in 2012. That is when jihadists groups allied with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb linked up with local Tuareg groups to occupy cities in northern Mali, like Timbuktu.
The commission, mandated by the 2015 Algiers peace agreement for Mali, documented abuses by all actors in the conflict and found that widespread human-rights abuses had been committed by the Malian military and that French forces had killed civilians in airstrikes. The report also raised questions about the participation of French forces in counterterrorism operations with Malian forces, who have been accused of committing grave human-rights violations, and French cooperation with armed militias accused of committing such abuses as recruiting child soldiers.
The commission report was confidentially submitted to the 15-member Security Council in mid-December 2020 and made public a few months later. But the Council has yet to act on the recommendations, such as setting up a tribunal, as some Council members say it is waiting for a response from the Malian government, which UN investigators have identified as major rights abusers. Apparently, only one country in the Council, an elected member, has raised the issue this year regarding accountability on the report’s findings.
While M. Mahamat Saleh Annadif, the head of Minusma, welcomed the report, the mission and other significant global bodies, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, have remained largely silent about the number of civilian casualties that have allegedly arisen from French airstrikes in Mali over many years.
France refused to answer questions related to the UN Commission of Inquiry report about the French military’s cooperation with Malian armed groups in 2017 and 2018 and the nature of its joint operations with Malian troops, particularly during Operation Serval in 2013. In February, when PassBlue asked the Ministry of Armed Forces whether it keeps records of civilians killed during airstrikes in the Sahel, a spokesperson wrote in an email:
“Even though such incidents rarely occur, every civilian victim is declared to the International Committee of the Red Cross but we are not in a position to give you any more information about this. In order to ensure transparency, we leave it to the recognized international authorities to declare the number of civilian victims.”
Clair MacDougall is an independent journalist who reports throughout Africa and is now based in the Sahel region, reporting on the security and humanitarian crisis there. She holds an honor’s degree in political theory and a master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. In February 2021, she won an award from the International Center for Journalists for her article on the first official death of a UN peacekeeper from Covid-19, published in PassBlue and The Daily Beast.