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Massacres, robberies, and no help to authorities A close look at one year of PMC Wagner’s ‘peacekeeping’ in Mali
Story by Meduza. Abridged translation by Emily Laskin.
The All Eyes on Wagner (AEOW) Project has released a new report on the activities of PMC Wagner mercenaries in Mali during the paramilitary group’s first year in the country. Analysts collected information from open sources, media reports, witness testimony, and human rights activists’ accounts of Russian mercenaries’ crimes. These include mass murders, rape, looting, and attacks on civilians. The report’s authors conclude that not only have Wagner fighters not helped Malian authorities, they have further aggravated the security situation in the country.
Why are PMC Wagner fighters in Mali and who’s leading them?
For the past 10 years, Malian authorities have been fighting Islamist separatists who have captured territory in the northern part of the country. The French military, followed by UN peacekeeping forces, have been present in the country since 2013.
There have been two coups d’etat in Mali since 2020, which resulted in Assimi Goita becoming the country’s interim president. In August 2022, after relations between the French military and the Malian military junta deteriorated, the last French soldiers who had taken part in Mali’s antiterrorist operations left the country.
News broke in September 2021 that in the wake of the break in relations with its Western allies, Mali's leadership was discussing the possibility of an agreement with PMC Wagner. According to Western media reports, Russian mercenaries were supposed to train Malian soldiers and provide security for high-ranking officials. The Russian Ministry of Defense even confirmed the deal's existence, but emphasized that Russian authorities had nothing to do with it. The west condemned the decision to deploy Wagner units in Mali.
The authors of the AEOW report note that politicians and organizations associated with PMC Wagner founder Evgeny Prigozhin began preparing public opinion for Russia’s increased influence in Mali a few months before any Wagner mercenaries arrived.
One pro-Russian campaign featured posters depicting Assimi Goita alongside Vladimir Putin. They are both dressed in military uniforms, holding weapons, and the poster’s text says the people of Mali “support” them.
Responding to journalists’ questions in May, Prigozhin denied that the Wagner Group is in Mali, calling its very existence a “legend.” (Four months later, he admitted that he founded the mercenary group in 2014). “Wherever there are Russian mercenaries, real or imagined, they don’t violate human rights,” he added.
The report cites media reports that the companies Alpha Development and Marko Mining, which are associated with Prigozhin and were started after PMC Wagner’s deployment to the country, were actively exploring gold mines in Mali. The news followed earlier reports that Wagner-affiliated companies were exploring and developing gold mines in other African countries where Wagner fighters had been seen.
According to the report, a 42-year native of Primorsky Krai named Ivan Maslov (codename Miron) and two other unnamed commanders led the Wagner mercenaries deployed in Mali. The Ukrainian Security Service has previously established Maslov’s links with PMC Wagner. And a database on the Ukrainian website Myrotvorets, which specializes in tracking Russian mercenaries, indicates that Maslov took part in storming the Luhansk airport in 2014, and that he may have been either a witness or a participant in the 2018 murder of Russian journalists in the Central African Republic.
Researchers have established that the first Wagner base in Mali was set up not far from the airport in the country’s capital of Bamako. Satellite images show that construction began on a camp there in November 2021, and that by the end of September 2022, various structures, including barracks, a few central buildings, and warehouses, were visible in the area.
The presence of Russian mercenaries in Mali expanded over the course of the year. Data analysis projects ACLED and Menastream show that by mid-July, there were nine PMC bases in the country, and operations involving Russian mercenaries were conducted in over 32 locations in central and northeastern Mali. In June, The New York Times reported that there were more than 1,000 Russian mercenaries deployed at roughly 15 bases and checkpoints across Mali.
Russian mercenaries joined the Malian Armed Forces (FAMa) in counterterrorism operations, including against rebels from the jihadist group Jama’at Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM). During those operations, there were no fewer than six instances of fighters from the joint forces being killed or injured by jihadists, the report’s authors note.
After Wagner soldiers arrived in Mali, local residents began accusing the mercenaries of murder, torture, kidnapping, looting, sexual assault, and intimidation, frequently with the participation of the local military. Malian authorities are investigating some exceptional cases.
Mass murder during ‘antiterrorist’ operations
The All Eyes on Wagner document contains several reports and testimonies of mass murder, extrajudicial executions, sexualized violence (solicitations, rapes), arbitrary arrests, looting, and intimidation of civilians. In all, according to researchers, Wagner soldiers had a hand in 370 such episodes. In most cases, the violence was directed at members of the Fulani people, who are associated with armed Islamic groups in Mali.
Among the most famous incidents, and the best documented by human rights groups, are the massacres of civilians in the villages of Dogofry and Moura where, by the most conservative estimates, over 330 civilian residents were killed.
According to witnesses, in February, Wagner and FAMa soldiers arrested several local residents who were returning from the market. The report’s authors say that Wagner and FAMa soldiers went village to village, making arrests and looting. Human Rights Watch reported that around 40 people were arrested and then disappeared during this operation.
In early March, the charred bodies of at least 35 men were discovered in Dogofry, among them the missing arrestees. One of the residents whom human rights groups interviewed said that the bodies were piled up in groups, and some of the victims were blindfolded or had their hands tied. According to him, the nature of the injuries indicated that people had been killed with firearms and knives.
Then, later that month, at least another 300 people were killed during a “counterterrorism” operation in the city of Moura, which was under jihadist control. Witnesses say that on the morning of March 27, near the city market, around 30 jihadists exchanged fire with soldiers who arrived by helicopter. As a result, several Islamists, local residents, and at least two foreign soldiers — presumably Russian mercenaries — were killed.
Afterwards, witnesses claim that soldiers searching for rebels blocked the exits to the city, killing everyone who tried to flee, and arresting and interrogating hundreds of civilian residents, mostly men. They confiscated telephones and other valuables during arrests. The detainees were then divided into several groups and selectively killed. Survivors say that members of the Bobo (an ethnic group) and Bella (a name that has historically been used to refer to slaves in Tuareg society) people were forced to dig mass graves. According to witnesses, the victims of the massacre included both civilians and jihadists who concealed their weapons and tried to hide from the military.
The operation ended on March 31. According to human rights groups, around 100 “white” soldiers who were not speaking French participated. Locals suggested they were Russians from PMC Wagner. Jihadists also believe that PMC Wagner and FAMa soldiers were responsible for the massacre.
Malian authorities reported a successful “counterterrorist” organization. The country’s Ministry of Defense said that, between March 23 and March 31, 203 “terrorists” were killed and another 51 people were arrested. The Ministry did not mention civilian casualties.
Participants in the AEOW project also spoke to witnesses of other, similar events carried out by PMC Wagner in Mali.
The report’s authors also cite several instances in which Russian mercenaries tried to shift the blame for massacres onto French soldiers.
On April 21, reports circulated on social media that a mass burial site was found near the military base in Gossi after the departure of French forces. The report noted that Russians tried to connect the mass grave to the news that French forces had arrested six people near the base during a counterterrorism operation the previous day. The French command said that after questioning, the detainees were released or handed over to Malian authorities.
Journalists, analysts, and the French General Staff came to the conclusion that the Twitter account that first reported the Russian version of events was a fake, connected either to Russian trolls or to mercenaries.
The French version of events is supported, analysts believe, by the fact that the French left the base on April 19, handing it over to FAMa. After the Russian attempt to discredit the French military, France published drone photos which show Malian military and Russian mercenaries in Gossi on April 20. On April 21, a French drone filmed “white” people in military uniform bringing bodies to the base, covering them with sand, and then filming the mass grave. The report’s authors suggest that some of the bodies may have been victims of an official FAMa “counterterrorism” operation which took place in the town of Hombori on April 19. Hombori saw arrests and shootings that day, as well as an explosion in a FAMa car which killed a Wagner soldier, suggesting that Russian mercenaries were involved.
Extrajudicial killings, sexual violence, and intimidation of civilians
In early May, an anonymous source sent AEOW photos that had circulated on closed WhatsApp channels a few months earlier. They showed the bodies of two men who had been killed. According to the source, the murders are believed to have taken place on March 27, on a road between towns in central Mali. Military operations and violence against locals were reported at the same time and in the same region as the alleged murders.
After examining the photos, analysts concluded that the murdered men were probably JNIM fighters killed in an armed clash with Wagner and FAMa soldiers. Judging by the photos, the jihadists were on motorcycles when they encountered the military. They were armed.
The photos also included five other people, two of whom were Black. The report's authors believe one of the men is a FAMa fighter based on his uniform. Two more cannot be identified by their uniforms or weapons. The fifth, a white soldier, is wearing a jacket and pants in a camouflage pattern seen on PMC Wagner uniforms in January 2022. The analysts believe he is a Wagner fighter.
AEOW does not believe it’s possible that there are French soldiers in the photos with the murdered men, since Malian authorities banned them in December 2021 from conducting operations in certain parts of the country, including the region where the murders took place.
According to several sources from Mali, PMC Wagner mercenaries robbed village residents of money and valuables. According to media reports, Wagner fighters sometimes occupied local homes without the consent of their owners. The AEOW report says that in some cases, in order to avoid information leaks, mercenaries cut off communications to towns.
In September, local WhatsApp channels blamed Russian fighters for attacking a convoy carrying gold. The drivers of the convoy were allegedly injured and tied up during the attack. AEOW suggests that Malian authorities were unable to pay the mercenaries monthly for their services, something sources who spoke to Meduza confirmed.
There were also media reports of FAMa fighters and Russian mercenaries attacking women in the village of Nia Ouro. Wagner fighters reportedly forced them to undress and took pictures with them, after which several local women were sexually assaulted. The Malian army subsequently announced an investigation into the incident.
PMC Wagner escalated conflict and increased violence in Mali
The AEOW report says that Wagner fighters’ participation in Malian authorities “counterterrorism” operations did not lead to the operations’ success. In fact, the presence of PMC Wagner exacerbated the security situation in the country.
In May, the UN reported that the number of human rights violations committed by the Malian military against civilians increased by a factor of 10 between the end of 2021 and the first quarter of 2022. ACLED estimates that FAMa and PMC Wagner fighters killed at least 456 civilians between January and April of this year.
In October, the US reported that the number of terrorist attacks in Mali only increased — by 30 percent in the past half year — following the arrival of Russian mercenaries.
Many Malians have been forced to leave the country because of the ongoing conflict, most for neighboring Mauritania. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 15,000 Malian citizens have resettled in the country’s border regions since January 2022. The total population of Mali is 21.7 million people.
Abridged translation by Emily Laskin
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