An increasing number of children are being killed and abducted in Niger as the conflict in the country’s western Tillaberi region, bordering Mali and Burkina Faso, has worsened significantly, a human rights group said on Monday.
“Niger is at a precipice. In parts of the country an entire generation is growing up surrounded by death and destruction,” Amnesty International’s Matt Wells said while highlighting the release of a 57-page report.
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“The Nigerien government and its international partners must urgently take action to monitor and prevent further abuses across Tillaberi region and protect the basic rights of all those affected by this deadly conflict – especially children.”
The London-based human rights group pointed the finger at the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) for causing the “devastating impact on children” in the region.
According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), cited by Amnesty, violence against civilians led to 544 conflict-related deaths between January and August, up from 397 people killed in similar incidents in 2020.
The report said armed groups have killed more than 60 children in Niger’s tri-border area in 2021, adding ISGS appears responsible for most of the killings.
Amnesty spoke to 16 boys who narrowly survived the armed group’s attacks on their villages. “We all are used to hearing gunshots and to seeing [dead] people layered on top of [dead] people,” a boy in his early teens old told the rights group.
Another boy, who witnessed the murder of his 12-year-old friend in March, said: “I think of Wahab and how he was killed. Sometimes I have nightmares of being chased by people on motorbikes or seeing Wahab pleading with the [attackers] again.”
The report also found as of June, the conflict forced at least 377 schools in the Tillaberi region to close, affecting more than 31,700 students. The figure represents an increase of more than 100 schools and almost 10,000 out-of-school students from November 2020.
‘We have been abandoned’
ISGS, Amnesty reported, has emerged in the last three years as the dominant armed group along the Niger-Mali border where it recruits among impoverished and marginalised communities.
Meanwhile, on the border with Burkina Faso, JNIM also intensified its recruitment efforts since the start of the year by focusing on young men and boys, said the report.
Such armed groups, Amnesty said, have found it easy to operate in Niger’s border areas as they have been evacuated by government forces.
“At first, we’d call the FDS [Niger’s armed forces] but now it can be two days and they don’t come,” said a 50-year-old man from Torodi, near the Burkina Faso border. “We have been abandoned.”
Without “urgent action” by the government and international players to prevent further abuses, Amnesty warned, “the situation of children and the wider population is likely to deteriorate further, with armed groups already exploiting the state’s absence to carry out gross abuses”.