The first sound of approaching danger was the roar of dozens of motorcycles of the killers at dusk. Then came cries for help and screams of panic as the shooting started. Ibrahim, shaking with fear, despaired that he was not going to live through what lay ahead.
The first bursts from the Kalashnikovs cut down men out on the streets. The gunmen then began kicking down doors of buildings, dragging out the people inside before forcing them down on the ground and executing them in batches.
Ibrahim, a 32-year-old farmer, knew it was only a matter of time before the jihadis came into the house where he was drinking tea with his friend Yaya. His instinct was to hide. Yaya thought the only hope was to run: that was the last time he was seen alive.
More than 54 people died that evening in Outtagouna and three nearby villages in eastern Mali. It was one of the worst massacres of the bloody eight-year-long jihadi conflict in the country which claimed thousands of lives and drew in the United Nations and international forces, including from Britain.
Mali and neighbouring countries in the Sahel are experiencing the fastest growing Islamist insurgency in the world. The Outtagouna massacre has been blamed on an Isis affiliate, ISGS (Islamist State in Greater Sahara) which has established a strong presence along with the al-Qaeda linked Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Musimlim (JNIM). Sixty-nine people were killed by jihadis in Niger, near the Malian border, this week, the latest in a wave of such attacks in the country.
In addition to the Islamist violence, there are a series of conflicts between ethnic groups in some areas – between the Fulani and Dogon, Bambara and Fulani, Touaregs and Arabs, and Touaregs and Songhais – adding to the division.
“My family were outside and I was very frightened for them. But I knew I’d be killed out in the open, the shooting went on and on, there was no break. I prayed to God to keep them safe and hoped they had managed to hide”, Ibrahim said.
He could peek out through a window to see the carnage outside. “The men with guns were all in black or other very dark clothes. Their faces were covered; a few of them were quite small as if they were young,” he recalled. “There was a lot of shouting but I could not really understand what was being said. The men seemed almost calm as they were shooting. I saw two of them kill an old man, they knocked him down and then they shot him and walked away. I couldn’t watch any more after a little while; I was very scared.”
Male residents were targeted in Outtagouna and the hamlets of Karou, Ankoam and Deouteguef. Some were 12 or 13 years old, and one boy was just aged ten. The local doctor, an imam and village elders were among the dead. Women and children were spared, but a few were wounded by stray bullets.
Some victims were dragged out of cars and vans. In Karou, men were lined up over a ditch and shot; in Ankoam they were pursued into the bush and finished off. There was a perfunctory search of the house Ibrahim was in by the attackers before they moved on. He could hear but not see them. After waiting for the shooting to stop, he went outside.
“There were bodies lying in blood, people trying to find their relatives”, he said. “I tried to find my own wife and children. They were not among the bodies, thanks to God, but I found the bodies of a cousin and a nephew – my nephew was young; he was only 17.”
Ibrahim’s wife and four children had fled. He found them the following day hiding in a wadi. The family collected what they could from their homes and left. British troops, part of Minusma, the UN mission to Mali, had arrived in the area by then. But they feared insurgents would come back.
Speaking near the town of Ansongo, where the family are now staying, Ibrahim, who did not want his full name revealed, remained deeply apprehensive about safety. “We have lost everything”, he said. “But we will stay here for as long as necessary – it is not the time to go back.”
The cause of the slaughter is not entirely clear. There are reports that it was in retribution for local people informing on the rustling of cattle, a precious commodity, which had led to arrests of some Islamists by Malian forces. There are also claims that residents had failed to observe the harsh version of sharia law the jihadis had imposed.
Ibrahim expressed surprise that the gunmen would want to deprive themselves of the tax income imposed on communities by Islamists and organised criminal gangs. “Everyone knows they got money from people. They got them from shopkeepers in towns and from the farmers in the villages”, he said.
“There is a system for that. Two or three men would come on motorbikes to collect the money. Or they would wait outside for people to bring it to them”, he added. “They must have been very angry to do what they did. There are rumours, but it is not something I want to talk about.”
And members of a large number of armed militias fighting for the Malian government have been accused of theft and abuse too. Malian security forces have also been accused of extra-judicial killings and disappearances of detainees.
Last month Human Rights Watch urged the military regime running the country to investigate numerous allegations of abuse. But the overall numbers of those killed by the security forces has decreased according to the latest figures, due partly to greater scrutiny from international organisations.
In the hamlet of Tarabat, Mohammed, a 38-year-old farmer and herder spoke of militia fighters accompanying French troops who are part of a counter-insurgency mission stealing from homes. “This had happened here. The French searched the house and went away, but the men who were with them came back and said they had the right to carry out another search. They took money and ornaments from women.”
“This kind of thing makes people very nervous. We like seeing the UN, the British and international forces in this area because that scares away the bandits and terrorists, but we are nervous about some of the fighters who come with them,” Mohammed said.
Some of the killings in the area are part of the sectarian strife, he said, and jihadis and the criminal gangs sometimes fight each other. There is not, in his view, much of an attempt to establish an Islamic State.
“How can some people on motorcycles establish a state? They ask us to follow sharia law, but we follow that anyway. They tax people on the number of cattle they have and the size of their homes. The way to get rid of them and the bandits is to have the government help the people here, but that does not happen,” he said.
British troops arrived in Outtagouna the morning after the massacre and stayed in the area for three weeks in an attempt to reassure the locals. The Long Range Reconnaissance Group (LRRG) drawn from the Royal Anglian Regiment has been tasked by the UN mission to visit remote locations which have seen little or no governance.
Major Harry Willis, of the Royal Anglian Regiment, spoke of the challenges being faced by the UK force here compared to conflicts like Afghanistan. “The difference is that in Afghanistan you know who you are likely to meet. Here in places like Outtagouna, you don’t know what to expect. We have to be prepared to fight, kill the enemy if he is trying to kill the people you are trying to protect and to kill you.”
“But,” he added, “we also have to work softly, to understand the situation and to know what it takes to reassure the people. That takes a bit more time and a bit more cognitive effort. You need hard power, but also the soft approach to comfort a child whose father has been brutally killed. At the end of the day, we are here for a period of time then we hand over to other UN contingents.”
The UK troops have arrested a number of suspected Isis fighters following the massacre and shot dead two jihadis. The duties in Outtagouna were passed on to a Swedish unit, but they and other UN contingents which followed had to eventually leave. Malian forces were then due to take over security.
Isis and al-Qaeda have been carrying out fierce attacks on Malian forces. The storming of a base by Isis at Indelimone, not far from where the British forces clashed with gunmen, killed around 80 soldiers, one of a series of assaults at the time seen as an attempt to clear a large swathe of government area.
Two counter-insurgency operations, Barkhane and Tacouba, by the French and the European Union, have inflicted significant losses on the insurgency. The French recently killed Adnane Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, the head of the ISGS and Nasser Al Tergui, a senior leader of al-Qaeda’s JNIM. Several hundred Islamist fighters have died.
France, however, is reducing its contingent of 5,000 troops by half and Barkhane is due to be subsumed into Tacouba. There has been friction between Emmanuel Macron’s government and Mali’s regime which has accused Paris of lack of consultation and “abandoning Mali in mid-fight”.
News has emerged of secret talks between the regime and the Russian mercenary company Wagner Group run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a confidante of Vladimir Putin. European states, as well as those from Africa with troops in Mali, have warned that they will withdraw if Wagner, which has faced widespread accusations of human rights abuse in the countries where they operate, is allowed in.
Islamist leaders claim the jihad in Mali has been hugely energised by the US-led western retreat and Taliban triumph in Afghanistan. “ We are winning”, declared Iyad Ag Ghaly, the head of JNIM.
Outtagouna now lies empty of its people, with tumbleweeds blowing in the hot Sahara wind along its deserted streets. The town hall, the school, and the doctor’s home are badly damaged and abandoned. “Maybe one day, people will go back there: if not, the desert will take over,” said Ibrahim. “But we escaped – my family are alive. That is the most important thing of all.”
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies