KONGOUSSI, Burkina Faso — Market day was in full swing when soldiers sped into the northern town of Taouremba, firing in the air, as their drone buzzed overhead. They herded the men into the central marketplace, residents said, letting the women run home.
A soldier began reading names from a tablet computer, and those who were called forward were told to strip, then tied up with their own clothes and thrown into a pickup truck. When some men tried to hide in the crowd, two informants in hoods and veils pointed them out. One man was shot on the spot.
Later, according to accounts from witnesses and human rights advocates, the bodies of the 13 abducted villagers were dumped just outside of town.
Over the past four years, Burkina Faso has fallen into chaos, with gunmen robbing, killing and threatening some of the poorest citizens in this landlocked West African nation, and causing 850,000 to flee their homes.
Some of the gunmen are terrorists, loosely allied with the Islamic State or Al Qaeda.
Some are bandits.
Some are vigilantes.
It is seldom spoken of, and the government denies it, but some are soldiers in Burkina Faso’s armed forces.
In the name of ridding their country of Islamist extremists and bandits, government security forces are now killing about as many people as jihadists do, according to interviews with human rights campaigners and a security analyst.
At least 2,000 people are thought to have been killed in Burkina Faso in the last 18 months, though such counts are woefully incomplete, partly because the government passed a law prohibiting journalists from reporting on anything that could “demoralize” defense forces.
I went to Burkina Faso with a photographer in March and drove to the far north, where violence was still occurring, to reach refugee camps and vigilante outposts. I was looking for the victims of military abuses, seeking to document both recent attacks and those from as far back as 2018 — like the one on market day in Taouremba.
Across the Sahel — a vast stretch of land just south of the Sahara — military violence against civilians has surged in recent months, according to new reports by international security and human rights groups. Soldiers in Mali and Niger, countries to Burkina Faso’s north, are also carrying out targeted killings, a recent United Nations report shows.
Such abuses are strengthening the hand of militants who portray themselves as defenders of the people, enabling them to expand their influence even further across the Sahel, where French and American forces have been struggling for years to help African troops defeat the insurgents.
The soldiers’ attacks have shocked the people of Burkina Faso, renowned throughout West Africa for their kindness and hospitality.
When the country’s revered revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara abandoned its colonial name, Upper Volta, 35 years ago, he chose a new name to live up to. Burkina Faso, a country of 20 million people about the size of Colorado, means the Land of Upright Men, and many residents try to embody that spirit.
A few years ago, which religion or ethnic group a person belonged to mattered little. It was even odd if someone asked. Mossis — Burkina Faso’s majority ethnic group — married Fulanis all the time. The last name Dicko — a Fulani name common in the north — wasn’t something that could get its bearer killed.
In much of the country, that has changed.
Just before the soldiers zipped out of Taouremba on motorbikes and in pickups bearing their bound captives, in the October 2018 attack, the soldiers were heard accusing the Fulani villagers of wanting to chase all the Mossi out of the region.
“We’re going to kill all of you,” one resident said he heard a soldier say.
Like all the victims of military abuses interviewed for this story, the resident asked for anonymity, terrified that the state would find him and exact revenge. Their accounts were confirmed in interviews with other villagers and human rights researchers.
Although they only make up about 8 percent of the national population, the Fulani, traditionally nomadic herders, are in the majority in Burkina Faso’s northern region, the epicenter of the violence. The village of Taouremba lies in this area.
The current government came to power after an uprising brought President Blaise Compaoré’s 27-year rule to an abrupt end in 2014. Led by Roch Kaboré, once prime minister under Mr. Compaoré, the government is dominated by the Mossi.
Over the years, Fulanis have had little political power in Burkina Faso. Their communities have felt neglected by successive governments.
When an Islamic preacher harnessed Fulani anger over a decade ago, railing against the government on local radio, a movement was born. It was called Ansaroul Islam, which means Defenders of Islam, but locals say social grievances were as important as religion. International terrorist groups trying to expand their influence from Mali into neighboring Burkina Faso found young Fulani men easy to recruit.
Attacks by government forces on villages like Taouremba have eroded any loyalty left.
“I always respected the government — I was even proud of it,” said a herdsman and subsistence farmer from Taouremba. “But now I hate hearing that word.”
He said he escaped the soldiers by lying down and hiding in a millet field, but when they had gone, he had to go find his friends’ bodies. He agreed to be interviewed only at night.
“The government is traumatizing people,” he said. “It’s what pushes people to sign up to the armed groups.”
He and other villagers said they had no idea why they were attacked.
But they knew very well who was responsible: soldiers. That day, people near a military base 20 miles away saw the military’s distinctive gray pickups leave in a convoy in the direction of Taouremba. They telephoned their friends there to warn them.
Militants could never have moved in broad daylight like that.
“They’re driving in huge convoys in the middle of areas where there is a discernible presence of security forces,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director for Human Rights Watch. “The jihadists just can’t do that.”
Retaliation is often the military’s motive, researchers said. Insurgents have killed and mutilated soldiers in recent months — so their comrades lash out at villages suspected of harboring or supporting jihadists.
But there is no proof that the villagers they kill are collaborators. They get no trials — just summary executions. Several witnesses described seeing bodies surrounding the northern city of Djibo, where reports in April said security forces killed 31 people.
Confusion often seems to work in the perpetrators’ favor.
Jihadists often exchange their short pants for army combat uniforms. Soldiers sometimes put on turbans and sandals for attacks, their victims said.
That way, they fall into the category of what the government, the press and even victims call “unidentified gunmen.”
Unidentified gunmen showed up on Safiata Sayore’s doorstep six months ago. “Salaam alaykum,” they said — “We come in peace.” Then she said they opened fire, killing her brother, an account confirmed by village elders. She fled to a camp in the central town of Kongoussi.
When, in March, the government blamed “unidentified gunmen” for killing 43 people, including a 90-year-old blind man, in three Fulani villages, Fulani rights activists had enough.
The government knew who was responsible, said Daouda Diallo, secretary-general of the Collective Against Impunity and Community Stigma, a local human rights organization.
“As well as being a lie, this statement makes the government complicit in ethnic cleansing,” said Mr. Diallo.
That attack, he said, was carried out by volunteer vigilantes. These groups sprang up to fight crime, but many vigilantes now serve as military informants and accompany soldiers on operations, armed with handmade hunting guns and long knives. In January the government passed a law giving some vigilantes official status, two weeks of training and a firearm.
One mostly Mossi vigilante network called the Koglweogo is notorious for a massacre of Fulanis in Yirgou in January 2019, in which the Collective Against Impunity said more than 200 people were killed. There are vigilante units and spies all over the country.
They do not always try to hide their killing.
One such vigilante leader, Moise Kinda unapologetically described how soldiers around Kongoussi, his sleepy hometown, kill people, dumping their bodies at roadsides. He was incredulous at the suggestion that people suspected of collaborating with terrorists should be arrested and prosecuted, rather than summarily killed.
“If they were in prison, we’d have to feed them and give them water, and their friends might come and attack the prison,” he said, reading glasses tucked into his shirt.
In his office in the capital, Simon Compaoré, the president of the ruling party, a former secretary of state and mayor of Ouagadougou, said, “I don’t want to hear these people telling me human rights, human rights.”
He denied that the military and allied vigilantes were targeting the Fulani, and carrying out what activists have called “political extermination.”
“It’s not true. Unfortunately, we have compatriots that are playing a very dangerous game, who make the population believe that the government is against the Fulani,” he said.
Some people left Taouremba after the 2018 attack. Others stayed, thinking the soldiers must be satisfied, as all the people whose names they had called had been killed. But in May 2019, soldiers arrived again. This time, they took 33 men. The villagers said they found only 28 of their bodies.
Taouremba’s marketplace now sits empty. Nobody lives in its houses. The millet field that the man with the embroidered cap hid in is fallow.
Its surviving residents are scattered around the country, in camps or other people’s homes. Some women have walked back a few times, to see what’s left. Only women can take this risk, since they are not usually targeted.
Terrified people pour out of the countryside seeking safety.
Not many make it to the capital, Ouagadougou, where life continues as if the country weren’t facing its largest displacement crisis ever.
The government doesn’t want the newly homeless descending on Ouagadougou. Maintaining the Ouagadougou bubble is a political strategy by the ruling party to avoid alienating voters ahead of November’s election, analysts say.
If they walk far enough, displaced people can get to the old Burkina Faso, that country of hospitality and integration.
In much of the south, it still exists. Communities hold meetings to discuss how to care for their countrymen fleeing from the north. Village leaders give new arrivals food and farming land.
But some of the displaced have been through too many attacks to fathom starting again, including survivors of the Taouremba killings.
“I don’t want to belong to this country anymore,” said one man, mourning the friends he had lost.