Wagner’s war on civillians

In Mali, Wagner militias are terrorizing the Fula, Tamasheq (Tuareg), and Moura population.

Kidal, Northern Mali, 2015. Image via UN Photo on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Deed.

The Sahel region is facing a series of crises, and the rest of the world seems unaware. In addition to the ecological dimension, which includes advancing desertification and climate catastrophes, the region is experiencing political instability with successive military coups, notably in Mali (2020 and 2021), Burkina Faso (2022), and Niger (2023). While for some, these military governments offer hope for a permanent break with French neocolonialism, part of the population is suffering an unprecedented escalation of violence.

After NATO’s invasion of Libya in 2011, criminal networks were formed to smuggle people, weapons, and drugs across the Sahara Desert, expanding beyond national borders and challenging the power of armies. For more than ten years, this region of the African continent has been immersed in a multidimensional crisis that gets worse every day. In the last three years, the number of massacres and deaths of civilians has evidently and alarmingly increased. Mass population displacements are being driven by armed groups, which are sometimes agents of the state and other times third-party agents acting under the protection of the military.

As the eyes of the world are focused on the ongoing genocide in Gaza, the military that controls power in Mali is taking advantage of the situation in the Middle East to discreetly exterminate ethnic minorities, using the fight against terrorism as justification. In this context, against a backdrop of a major political crisis and growing international isolation of the military junta in power in Bamako, the Russian mercenary company Wagner arrived in Mali in December 2021 to “help” the military junta in its antiterrorism fight.

Since then, extreme danger has afflicted the Fula, Tamasheq (Tuareg), and Moura populations of northern Mali. In September 2023, the military junta decided to launch operations led by men from the Russian Wagner militia. The mercenary groups use Turkish drones from the company BAYRAK with high destructive potential, targeting those it treats as “terrorists,” including not only the representatives of the former armed fronts—who were their partners until the beginning of this attack, under the Algiers Peace Agreement signed in 2015—but also the Fula, Tamasheq, and Moura.

Military actions amounting to ethnic cleansing of minorities are underway, combined with discriminatory propaganda calling for violence against and persecution of all civilians who wear turbans or other clothing typical of nomadic populations. Violence does not spare the elderly, women, and children, who have their homes burned down and their land, livestock, and little wealth stolen.

Since 2022, men from Wagner have been accused of involvement in several massacres and human rights violations by the United Nations Mission for the Stability of Mali (MINUSMA) and several local and regional associations, such as the Association Kisal and Tabital Pulaaku of Mopti (both of which work to defend the Fula community in Mali and around the world) and Imuhagh International and Kal Akal Association (which defend the rights of the Kel Tamasheq people). In addition to the reports made available by these organizations, we managed to gather testimonies from some refugees and victims through social networks, and according to them, Wagner’s militias dominate through terror, destroying all nomadic camps, poisoning water wells, raping, and looting homes of these communities.

According to the December bulletin published on the group’s Facebook page on January 7, 2024, Kal Akal Association detailed that “the types of violations documented include: summary executions, massacres, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, acts of torture, destruction of sources of water and food for the population, deliberate destruction of public and private infrastructure, looting and depredation of properties and installation of explosives on the bodies of already dead civilians to reach more people.”

The note from Kal Akal went on to say that  the “main targets of these violations are the Tuareg, Arabs [Moura] and Fula.” It also reported systematic robberies “wherever Wagner and FAMA went,”  and cases of looting recorded in the cities of Kidal, Tadoumoumt, Larnab, Tarkint, Anafif, Ber, Aguelhoc, Ghali Loumo, and Lougui. Infrastructure was destroyed in the municipalities of Aïn Rahma, Eritedjeft, Tarkint, Tehardjé, Aglal, Tessalit, and Larnab, to the detriment of health centers, water towers, mosques, and homes. The association also reported several rapes in the cities of Léré, Kidal, Ber, and Anafif; two forest fires in the Kidal region; at least two mass graves, each containing dozens of bodies in the Timbuktu and Kidal regions; and 40 arbitrary arrests, including two members of the International Committee of the Red Cross team in the Kidal region.

“They came to us after a terrorist attack against the Malian army. After being interrogated, they took 14 people, Fula, Tuareg and Arabs [Moura], and to this day none of them have returned. Soon it will be a year since we have heard from them. They have families, wives, and children. It’s really deplorable,” detailed a witness in a WhatsApp group.

In its statement from January 2024, the office of Tabital Pulaaku, the international association for the defense of Fula rights, in Mali denounced the massacre of a dozen young Fula herdsmen killed by Wagner in Ndoupa, in the central region of Mali. In addition to these massacres, the Fula organization also expressed its concern about the multiple kidnappings and the destruction of camps that its community has suffered at the hands of both Wagner and the Malinese Armed Forces (FAMA) since the end of 2021.

“We suffered the expulsion of our families to refugee camps for fear of Wagner’s torture and oppression. We lost our jobs, our cities, and our lives that we were used to, just as our children lost their education,” says a refugee who fled across the Algerian border.

Since September 2023, thousands of innocent civilians, mainly residents of rural areas (including the sick, injured, and maimed), have been forced to flee on foot for more than 300 kilometers to cross the borders with Mauritania and Algeria. In these countries, it is estimated that there are already around one million refugees from Mali, in forced displacements that began in 1990 and worsened in 2012 due to violence committed by FAMA. Despite the terrible living conditions, those who manage to be welcomed in refugee camps celebrate. “The most important thing is that my entire village received asylum in Mauritania,” declared a man from the Timbuktu region who is in the M’Berra refugee camp in Mauritania.

Turkey is another important actor involved in this catastrophe. Through its company BAYRAK, Turkey is using its technologies to serve an army guided by a military junta that frequently attacks innocent and defenseless populations. Thus Turkey, a country that claims to be a “defender” of Islam and Muslims, is an accomplice in ethnic cleansing in the most Islamized region of Africa, making it clear that the motivation for the massacre is not simply religious.

The massacre and extermination continue silently, without occupying pages in the international press, covered up by the military government of Assimi Goïta, which watches everything as if it had planned the ethnic cleansing of the people in the north of the country. This guarantees the suppression of rebellions and the confiscation of productive lands, where relevant mineral resources are found.

For now, associations like Kal Akal continue courageously documenting, as best they can, the abuses perpetrated by FAMA and Wagner, which systematically attack defenseless civilians, commit torture, murder, steal property, and burn houses and crops.

In short, this violence disrupts nomadic communities, making life impossible for these populations, who are forced to flee in total misery to refugee camps on the borders of Algeria and Mauritania. Humanitarian aid is almost impossible to reach these improvised refugee camps, where protection is not even guaranteed, as they have already been hit by Malian drones. It is worth remembering that more than 70% of the space called the Alliance of Sahel States (AES)—a military pact created in September 2023 by the junta that governs Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso—belongs to these violently displaced communities. Once victimized by the creation of colonial borders that disrespect their ethnic identities, Fula, Moura, and Tamasheq are now being arbitrarily decimated. Breaking this silence is necessary.

About the Author

Mohamed Issouf Ag Mohamed is a Tamasheq native of Mali, Master's student in International Relations (UNILA). Research member of the UFS International Center for Islamic Studies (CEAI_UFS).

Mariana Bracks Fonseca is a professor of African history at the Federal University of Sergipe, Brazil.

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