It was a walk 16-year-old Adama had done countless times, feeding the cows not far from his grandmother’s house in northern Burkina Faso. But one day in mid-February, the teen who dreamed of becoming an imam didn’t come home.
The next time his family saw him, it was in a harrowing cellphone video circulating on social media in the days after his disappearance. Adama lay alongside six other bloodied boys, their hands bound and most stripped to the waist. They were surrounded by about a dozen men, many in military fatigues, walking among the bodies, some taking video.
Sprinting through the frame, one man came to a halt over Adama and slammed a rock onto his head. As blood streamed from the jagged wound, the man shooting the video chuckled.
“This one … was still alive,” said the man, referring to Adama, whose last name is being withheld by The Associated Press out of concern for the safety of his family. “Good-for-nothing! You don’t have anything to do but to kill people. We’ll kill you one after another.”
Burkina Faso’s military has denied responsibility for the killings, which are a potential war crime under international law.
A frame-by-frame analysis of the 83-second video by the AP and an examination of satellite imagery shows the killings happened inside a military base about 2 kilometers (1 1/4 miles) northwest of Ouahigouya, a regional capital close to where Adama lived. From their uniforms and vehicles, the AP also determined troops in the video were members of Burkina Faso’s security forces, which until recently received military training and hardware from the United States and European Union.
Through exclusive interviews with Adama’s mother and uncle, the AP was also able to reconstruct his final hours. In response to a request for comment about the AP’s findings, the U.S. government condemned the killings as “horrific” and called for the perpetrators to be held accountable.
Burkina Faso is at the epicenter of Islamic extremist violence cutting across Africa. For seven years, the landlocked country has been wracked by violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group that has killed thousands, displaced about 10% of the country’s 20 million people and destabilized the nation.
Frustration at the government’s inability to stem the violence led to two coups last year by military juntas vowing to stamp out the insurgency. Yet little has changed, with Burkina Faso overtaking Afghanistan as the nation with the most deaths globally from extremist violence, according to a recent report by the Global Terrorism Index.
A former French colony that won its independence in 1960, Burkina Faso is a majority Muslim country that was initially spared jihadi violence that began in neighboring Mali 10 years ago. France sent troops into the region to drive back the Islamic militants in 2013. The violence has since swept across the Sahel region, the vast semiarid area south of the Sahara.
Despite the jihadi violence, some civilians say they are now more afraid of Burkina Faso’s security forces, who they accuse of extrajudicial killings and the disappearance of untold numbers of others accused of supporting the militants. Too often children are victims of the conflict.
The killings have grown under the junta led by Capt. Ibrahim Traore, who seized power in September. Traore promised to stem the violence, but people say they fear the repressive regime as security in the country deteriorates.
Part of the junta’s strategy has been to recruit some 50,000 volunteer fighters to serve alongside the military, but residents say this has only contributed to civilian killings as the volunteers round up anyone they suspect of ties to the extremists.
Often those swept up by government forces are ethnic Fulani, a largely Muslim group who make up less than 10% of the population and mostly live in the north, where fighting has been most intense. The Fulani are perceived to be working with the militants, who target them for recruitment in part because of their historic grievances with the state and the fact that they live in regions where the militants have seized large areas.
On the day that Adama, who was Fulani, disappeared his grandmother combed their village searching for him. Hours later she learned the truth: Her grandson and a fellow cattle herder the family identified only as Ousseni had been seized and blindfolded by six men on motorbikes and taken to a military base. Ousseni, who is not Fulani, told her the security forces briefly questioned him before releasing him.
Ousseni said while the boys were locked up he overheard the troops accuse them of being jihadis. Fearful for his life, Ousseni fled the country soon after speaking to Adama’s grandmother.
The video showing Adama’s head crushed by a rock began circulating on WhatsApp chat groups around Feb. 14. A few days later, the teen’s body was found on a roadside several kilometers (miles) from the military base where the video was filmed.
The AP spoke to members of Adama’s family who fled their homes after he disappeared. Adama’s uncle heard his nephew was abducted by security forces from the boy’s grandmother, who recounted what Ousseni had told her. Adama’s mother heard separately about her son’s seizure from a relative, who saw him grabbed by security forces. Neither Adama’s uncle nor his mother wanted their names used for fear of reprisal.
During an interview with the AP last month, the 40-year-old uncle shook his head as he replayed the video showing his nephew’s lifeless body.
“No one can escape death, but it is the way you die that makes a difference. This way of dying is so horrible,” he said. He recognized his nephew from the blue shorts he was wearing and his body, he said.
Adama’s mother has not seen the video; the family has kept it from her to spare her further anguish. His body was buried by neighbors.
Nearly 300 civilians have been killed in attacks involving Burkina Faso security forces between October and February, compared to about 100 during the same period a year ago, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, or ACLED. The violence has also taken a sharp ethnic turn, with the Fulani, including children, increasingly targeted by security forces because they are suspected of supporting the jihadis, according to rights organizations.
“During sweep operations as part of the fight against terrorism, most of the children arrested are Fulani. Those children generally tend the cattle,” said Dr. Daouda Diallo, a pharmacologist and general secretary of the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatization of Communities, a local rights group.
He said security forces mistakenly suspect the children of being “spies who inform the terrorists. And that’s why they’re … arrested.”
Amid the violence against civilians and ethnic divisions, the junta is trying to project an image of national unity.
Murals of soldiers mingling with residents and calling for an end to extremist violence line the capital’s streets. In one, a soldier and a civilian raise a torch over the words, “Overcoming terrorism together.” In another, a large red “X” is painted under the words “No to stigmatization.”
Jean-Emmanuel Ouedraogo, a spokesman for Burkina Faso’s government, denied its military was responsible for the deaths of the boys shown in the video. He told the AP that militants often disguise themselves as security forces and film their actions in order to blame the government.
“The training of our soldiers and our (volunteers) include a large component on human rights and in all units we have provost marshals who keep watch,” he said.
But using visual evidence from the video, the AP was able to match the location it was filmed to a military base named Camp Zondoma northwest of Ouahigouya, not far from where Adama was reported abducted. The buildings and trees in the video are consistent with recent satellite images of a compound within the base. The shadows cast by objects in the video puts the time at around 11 a.m.
Analysis of the soldiers’ uniforms and their vehicles show they are consistent with those used by Burkina Faso’s armed forces. To aid the fight against the Islamic State group and al-Qaida, the U.S. and EU have provided Burkina Faso with tens of millions of dollars worth of military training and equipment, including armored vehicles, drones, communications gear, uniforms, helmets and body armor.
A larger troop carrier seen in the video is a Mercedes-Benz Atego. The U.S. Defense Department delivered 10 trucks of that model and color to Burkina Faso in 2014.
Four security force members in the video wore shirts with the Burkina Faso flag on the left arm, and the boots some wore appeared to be Mil-Tecs, the same German brand the EU recently provided to Burkina Faso’s military.
Documents indicate Camp Zondoma is home to the 12th Commando Infantry Regiment of the Burkinabe army, though the AP was unable to conclusively link the uniforms worn by the men to that specific unit.
The AP shared its findings with the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley, which conducts research on war crimes and other serious violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. The center concurred that the visual evidence shows the video was filmed at the military base outside Ouahigouya and that the uniforms and trucks are consistent with those used by government troops in Burkina Faso.
In a response to the AP, U.S. State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said foreign assistance to Burkina Faso has been restricted since the military overthrew the democratically elected government in January 2022. U.S. officials have repeatedly raised the importance of protecting and respecting human rights with Burkina Faso’s leaders, he said.
“We strongly condemn the horrific violence as portrayed in the video,” Patel said. “Allegations of human rights violations and abuses must be investigated fairly and those determined to be responsible held accountable.”
EU support for Burkina Faso’s security and defense sector has specifically focused on human rights and international humanitarian law and no lethal weapons have been delivered or financed, said Nabila Massrali, an EU spokesperson. The EU is also investing in Burkina Faso’s military justice system and the military police to fight impunity, she said.
While the AP cannot verify the exact date the video was recorded, a former Burkinabe government official and a soldier said the boys were killed after an attack by militants on a volunteer fighter outpost on Feb. 13, the day before the video first appeared on social media. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Security reports gathered by ACLED, the data analysis group, show that Islamic militants attacked the volunteers that day, killing at least one and injuring two. According to the former government official, army reinforcements arrived soon after, and the killings in the video were carried out by security forces.
On Feb. 15, the day after the video appeared online, the chief of staff for Burkina Faso’s armed forces issued an order for soldiers to stop disseminating images of operations on social networks, according to a copy obtained by the AP.
“These disseminations of controversial images could have negative consequences and influence on the dynamics” of the security forces, it said.
As security deteriorates in Burkina Faso, children are bearing the brunt from all sides, rights groups say. Three times more children were killed during the first nine months of 2022 than in the same period a year earlier, according to UNICEF. Most died from gunshot wounds during attacks on their villages or from improvised explosive devices or other remnants of war, it said.
“We are concerned by the impact of counter-terrorism measures on children associated with armed groups while preventing and combatting threats to national security,” said Virginia Gamba, special representative of the U.N. secretary-general for children and armed conflict. Children associated with armed forces and groups should be treated as victims in line with international juvenile justice standards, she said.
Despite the Burkinabe government’s claim that their forces were not responsible for the deaths, conflict experts said militants don’t typically commit atrocities and blame state security forces. Nor do they kill children, for fear of alienating local populations.
“Jihadists usually carry (out) public executions against those collaborating with the state or opposition groups and will claim responsibility to send a message. They also don’t execute children so they could maintain popularity among the population,” said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Moroccan-based think tank.
Stephen Rapp, who served as the U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues during the Obama administration, said the killings of Adama and the other boys in the video were war crimes under the Geneva Conventions and could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court, of which Burkina Faso is a party.
“This would be a war crime even if the children had helped jihadis or had been child soldiers themselves,” said Rapp, the chief prosecutor in the trial of the former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor, who was convicted in 2012 of war crimes committed during the bloody civil war in Sierra Leone.
“Persons not taking part in hostilities as well as detained combatants are entitled to humane treatment and killing them is murder as a war crime under international law,” Rapp said. “As such these soldiers could be prosecuted in the ICC.”
Adama’s mother said there was no sign her son had become radicalized when he returned to Ouahigouya a year ago after spending a decade studying at a Quranic school in the western town of Nouna. While he was at the school she had no contact with her son except for occasional phone calls.
Their reunion last year was supposed to be the start of a new life together, she said.
“We were thinking of building a common life and living together in joy. He would get married and build a home. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that chance,” the 52-year-old woman said. Dressed in a long veil with matching silver bracelets on each arm, she lit up every time she spoke of her son’s life and the dreams they had, but quickly turned somber when she remembered his death.
An energetic child, Adama learned to walk before even crawling and was always innovative, playing make-believe with his younger siblings, she said.
After returning to Ouahigouya, he lived with his grandmother. But whenever Adama visited, his mother said, they’d stay up for hours talking about her life as a girl and his plans for the future. He wanted to be an imam and educate people, she said.
She recalled him studying the Quran, often by candlelight at night and quizzing neighbors about its teachings, always clutching his white prayer beads. He had the beads with him on the day he was seized, family members said.
The last time Adama’s mother saw him was in October, when he spent several weeks at her home. As he left, she warned him to be careful because the situation had become dangerous, and never to stray far from his grandmother’s house. When they last spoke in February, shortly before he was killed, they were making plans to reunite for the Muslim holiday of Ramadan.
Adama’s family has been too afraid to visit his grave, worried about being targeted by security forces.
“If he had lived long, I am sure he would have helped develop our community,” his mother said. “He would have become an imam to teach people to be good Muslims. He would have helped people live together and he would have supported the needy.″
– Sam Mednick and Michael Biesecker, AP News