The Harmattan is blowing sand through the dusty alleyways as the six helicopters bring death to Moura. It is a Sunday morning at the end of March, the heat of the day already having gained the upper hand over the nighttime chill. Ousman Diallo is making his way through the narrow streets in this small town in central Mali, passing stands full of onions, potatoes and millet. The Sunday the buzz of distant rotors begins drifting through town, Diallo will later recall, is the last market day before the fasting month of Ramadan.
Ousman Diallo is a cowherd, a slender 50-year-old and the father of seven children. He is sitting in a courtyard in Bamako, the capital of Mali, as he tells the story of those horrific days. By the end of those five days between the 27th and the 31st of March, more than 300 people will be dead, many of them civilians – shot, executed. It will become the largest massacre of the Malian war, which has been raging in the country for a decade.
The refugee camp in Bamako to which several thousand people fled following the collapse of northern Mali.Foto:
Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL
Diallo says that hundreds of people were streaming to the market on that Sunday to stock up on supplies for the nightly breaking of the fast. Villagers, farmers, men, women and children from Moura and the surrounding villages. Among them were, of course, also jihadis. Moura is essentially in the hands of Islamist fighters linked to the terrorist group al-Qaida. They have been collecting taxes, enforcing the Shariah and terrorizing the population for quite some time.
The helicopters arrived around 10 a.m., stirring up clouds of dust. It wasn’t uncommon for them to fly over the town on the way to other destinations, but this time, they hovered above the rooftops of Moura. "People were afraid,” says Diallo. And what happened next, he says, continues to haunt his dreams.
Four of the helicopters landed, with soldiers from the Malian army fanning out, accompanied by white, Russian-speaking troops, according to accounts from eyewitnesses and statements given to Human Rights Watch. High-ranking French military officers in Bamako confirmed to DER SPIEGEL that the Russians were members of the Wagner Group, the mercenary unit with close ties to the Kremlin – a force, founded by the Russian oligarch and Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, which has been deployed in eastern Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Mali, and which is feared for its brutality. Two helicopters, Diallo recalls, circled above the buildings like vultures. At times, the thunderous roar of their rotors drowned out the dry crackling of machine-gun fire.
Eyewitnesses say the Russians spread through the alleys of Moura with soldiers from the Malian army, hunting down jihadis. Restraint was apparently not a priority, and numerous civilians died in the hail of bullets. Both the Malian army and the mercenaries are well-known for crimes against civilians. Diplomats believe that the Wagner Group has around 1,000 fighters in the country. They sleep in police stations and elsewhere, and wear uniforms bearing no national flag. It has been reported, citing U.S. sources, that the Wagner Group is being paid $10 million per month for its presence in Mali.
Malian soldiers on patrol.Foto: PAUL LORGERIE / REUTERS
Russian mercenaries in Mali. The Wagner Group, notorious for its brutality, is allegedly being paid $10 million a month for their services in the country.Foto: French Army / AP
What took place in Moura in late March could offer a glimpse into the future of Mali, and perhaps even of the entire region: The battles between regular troops and foreign mercenaries on the one side, and jihadis, gangs and militias on the other, have become increasingly intense. They leave behind traumatized civilians who often have no other choice than to flee. Moscow, by contrast, seems to be on track to inflict significant damage to Europe in West Africa at relatively low cost – humiliating France, Germany and their partners.
The war in Mali, a country that is almost three-and-a-half times the size of Germany and has a population of 20 million, began in 2012. That year, the Tuareg, who live in the desert, rose up against the central government in a fragile alliance with Islamist groups, overrunning broad swaths of northern Mali and spreading terror. In early 2013, France, which formerly controlled the territory as a colony, intervened at the request of Malian officials. Paris sent in troops who then pushed back the rebels and, following year, dispatched up to 5,100 troops to the Sahel as part of an anti-terrorism operation called Barkhane. The United Nations, meanwhile, introduced MINUSMA, a peacekeeping mission, in 2013, initially with a mandate for 12,600 "blue helmets” to be stationed in the country.
The German military, known as the Bundeswehr, also joined the mission in Mali and there are currently 1,027 German soldiers present in the north of the country, with the cabinet of Chancellor Olaf Scholz resolving this month to increase the Bundeswehr presence to 1,400 troops – despite the escalating violence. But neither the Germans and the French, nor the UN peacekeepers, have been able to prevent the Islamists from once again going on the advance.
A Bundeswehr soldier in Mali. The German mission to the country could come to an end this fall.Foto: Kay Nietfeld / dpa
The government in Bamako has lost control of roughly two-thirds of the country and jihadis and gangs are now able to terrorize the population virtually at will. The violence has also spilled over into neighboring countries, particularly Burkina Faso and Niger. According to research conducted by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, an NGO, more than 23,500 people are thought to have been killed in the conflict between 2015 and February of this year, with 10,200 of those deaths taking place in Mali.
But the jihadis are only part of the problem. Because the state has pulled back from large areas of the country, residents have founded hundreds of self-defense militias. And because the Islamists primarily obtain new recruits from the Fulani people, some of these self-defense groups have essentially become ethnic militias. As a result, this war has also become a bloody conflict between the Fulani and other ethnic groups. All of this has been magnified by climate change and the reduction in the amount of fertile land in the region that has resulted.
The government’s weakness is both a cause and consequence of the conflict. Many Malians see their state as corrupt and view its institutions with deep distrust. The state also tends to people’s basic needs in fewer and fewer regions of the country.
In Moura, where the Russian soldiers hired by the government landed in late March, panic broke out after the first shots were fired. Hundreds tried to flee, but many were simply mowed down. Ousman Diallo says that he ran into his home and locked himself inside with his wife and children as the massacre started outside.
At some point, he recalls, there was silence. Diallo’s wife was crying and his children whimpering. "Are we all going to die? Are we all going to be killed?” his wife asked him over and over again. They hid indoors for two days before Diallo heard a distorted announcement over a loudspeaker: Those remaining in their homes, the voice said, would be treated as enemies.
At around 7 a.m., Diallo stepped out of his door, joining other frightened men in long robes standing in front of their homes. The soldiers herded them to the banks of the river to the east of the village. For five minutes, Diallo said, he walked past dead bodies lining the path for five minutes. He says he assumed that he was on the way to his own execution.
Hundreds of men were standing on the banks of the river. Diallo watched as soldiers selected some individuals and took them in small groups behind a low hill. He then heard gunshots. Those who disappeared behind the hill never returned. "I was under shock and just stared at the ground,” he says. Eyewitnesses later told Human Rights Watch of smoke rising from a site where the Russians and their allies likely burned corpses. Three mass graves were reportedly excavated as the killing continued. Only after several hours did the soldiers return to tell the men that they need not worry. "We’re only killing the jihadis and their allies.”
But Diallo knew that wasn’t true. Innocent men were also executed, he says, adding that he knew some of the men who disappeared behind the hill – and they weren’t jihadis, he says. "They were simple herdsmen. But what should I have said? Everyone was afraid for his own life.” The men were only allowed to return to the village five days after the arrival of the military.
A high-ranking European military commander in Bamako says that the Russian definition of who counts as a jihadi is extremely vague. "Sometimes, pantlegs that stop above the ankle suffices as an indication.” As a result, numerous innocents have paid for the war against the jihadis with their lives.
A Malian G5 soldier.Foto: SEBASTIEN RIEUSSEC / AFP
Mali is continuing to disintegrate before the eyes of the world. In May 2021, coup leader Assimi Goïta, who received military training in Germany and elsewhere, himself installed as the country’s president. Under his leadership, the relationship with France worsened. After the military junta hired mercenaries from the Wagner Group, Paris resolved to end its mission in the country, with current plans calling for the last French soldier to vacate by September. Elections are allegedly to be held within five years at the latest. Journalists have been expelled or are no longer allowed into the country.
The situation also isn’t improving for Bundeswehr troops in the country. In recent years, French soldiers have prevented attacks on the camp in Gao where the Germans are based almost every single night. Without protection from France, the mission will become riskier. According to a Bundeswehr risk analysis from February, the security situation is expected to worsen rapidly. The analysis determined that the Malian army will not be able to maintain pressure on the Islamists on its own. And the German mission could even come to an end this fall. The new operational mandate notes that the Bundeswehr mission could be adjusted following the French withdrawal if an acceptable security plan doesn’t materialize.
For France, the withdrawal is a defeat that has been coming for some time. The relationship between Paris and Bamako has been growing more difficult for years, with many politicians and activists in Mali, and most of the Malian population, blaming France for the failure of their government and turning it into a scapegoat for most of what goes wrong in the country. The French have repeatedly been accused of arrogance and of patronizing local partners. The president, Assimi Goïta, is considered a critic of the former colonial power, which is one reason many people like him. The information war that Moscow is waging against the West in Mali also appears to be helping him.
"Positioning yourself against France violates all logic. France wants us to be able to lead normal lives once again,” says Mogazi Samake, an opposition politician. He says that if Mali opposes France, it will find itself isolated, and that the junta’s only goal is hanging onto power. The Wagner Group, he contends, has "no real mission besides plundering the country.”
The French are pulling out of Mali, a defeat that has long been coming.Foto: IMAGO/Tanguy Vabatte / IMAGO/Le Pictorium
A French soldier in Mali.Foto: IMAGO/Tanguy Vabatte / IMAGO/Le Pictorium
A container belonging to the French anti-terror operation Barkhane.Foto: IMAGO/Tanguy Vabatte / IMAGO/Le Pictorium
The Wagner Group’s approach hasn’t just been on display in Moura, but also further to the west, in Diabaly. According to European military leaders, the Russians first surrounded the town to search for Islamists, then began torturing, interrogating and executing people. "European partners impose conditions. The Russians don’t,” says a European diplomat. Which makes them a convenient partner for military leaders and dictators. Samake, the opposition politician, believes "the Russians don’t care about Africa. All they want is to embarrass the West.”
Leaders in the capital of Bamako are more than happy to ignore their brutality. The leadership of Yerowolo, a popular movement with close ties to the junta, repeats what the junta has long been claiming: "Wagner isn’t in Mali.” They only admit the presence of Russian "military trainers.” Yerewolo supporters essentially act as the civilian foot soldiers of the military junta and the movement can reportedly mobilize hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in a short amount of time. Yerewolo stands primarily for two things: hatred of the French and affection for Russia. European military leaders and diplomats believe that the movement is supported with a fair amount of cash directly from the Russian Embassy. Its leaders, who like to portray themselves as anti-corruption fighters on the side of the people have, say European leaders, grown quite wealthy of late.
The Yerewolo movement is opposed to French presence in the country. The group claims that the French incited the conflict to have an excuse to invade.Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL
The movement also enthusiastically indulges in conspiracy theories. According to one narrative, France instigated the conflict as an excuse to invade. Another one blames the conflict between herders and farmers in the country on French soldiers, who allegedly steal cattle to incite conflict. Such conspiracy theories are part of an information war. The state-owned media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik have become well established in West Africa: Some 622 African news outlets rely on the Kremlin mouthpieces, and 37 of those are active in Mali. Several Russian outlets also now have French language channels that allow them to reach as many people in Africa as possible.
Anti-French activists in Bamako: "We are the people!"Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL
As in the Central African Republic, Russia uses local media outlets in Mali to expand its influence. Since it became known in September 2021 that the Wagner Group was negotiating with the Malian state, many newsrooms and news portals have adopted a clearly pro-Russian tone and are further spreading the messages delivered by Russia Today and Sputnik. Moscow is apparently also paying off opinion leaders to help expand Russian influence in Africa.
Last October, Maliactu, a Malian website, published an interview with Alexander Ivanov, a representative of the Russian "specialists” active in the Central African Republic. "We are the target of an information war because we are destroying the neocolonial system,” Ivanov said. "We will continue to help those who need us.” He then praised the "capabilities” of the Wagner Group and condemned France because it "isn’t interested in the development of national armies.” Russia has apparently delivered six military helicopters to Mali since October, along with other weapons.
A French military official to DER SPIEGEL
On a hot afternoon in late April, around 100 people – regional representatives and followers of the Yerewolo Movement – are gathered in a Bamako courtyard. They are holding signs demanding an end to the "French genocide” in their country. Yerewolo leaders are sitting on a stage and say they have an important announcement to make.
Just a few days prior to the gathering, videos and photos appeared on Twitter allegedly showing a mass grave near a former French military base in Gossi. The images show the bodies of around a dozen people, someone having provisionally covered them with sand. The men on the stage say that the images are proof of yet another atrocity committed by the French.
But there are significant doubts as to whether French troops are behind the killings. DER SPIEGEL was able to view drone footage from the French army showing what appear to be Wagner Group mercenaries burying the bodies in the sand. A high-ranking French military officer says that the bodies very likely belong to people killed by Wagner troops and that they then buried the remains in an attempt to cast blame on the French.
A screenshot taken from a French army video showing presumed Russian mercenaries with dead bodies near Gossi.Foto: Handout French Army / AFP
A woman who has sought shelter in the Faladie refugee camp near Bamako.Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL
The Faladie refugee camp near Bamako.Foto: Andy Spyra / DER SPIEGEL
The bodies likely come from the village of Hombori, located southwest of Gossi. Just a few days before the video was taken, at least 18 people were allegedly killed there in a firefight after a Russian mercenary had apparently lost his life after a mine exploded. In response, the Wagner Group had some 600 people rounded up and detained, says the high-ranking military official, with 50 of them never to be seen again. The official says that they are relatively certain that some of them ended up buried in the sand near Gossi.
In Bamako, the people start chanting "We are the people!” and "France get out!” The leaders onstage also say that the UN peacekeepers must leave the country. Later, one of the Yerewolo men compares the former colonial power to the AIDS virus. "As long as it is in the body, nothing works. When it is gone, all is well again.”
It is an event right out of the populist textbook. And it comes as no surprise that Yerewolo leaders then demand that the country pull out of ECOWAS, the West African economic alliance, which imposed sanctions on Mali following the putsch. Doing so would be yet another serious blow to the country’s economy.
"Things are going to get worse,” a French military official tells DER SPIEGEL in Bamako. "But we will no longer be there as a scapegoat. At some point the people will likely rebel against Russia.” He also believes that the Wagner troops will continue to kill innocents on their hunt for Islamists – intentionally. "They pin responsibility for terrorism on the population.” He says that neither the mercenaries nor Moscow are very interested in Mali.
Russia, the military leader says, is primarily interested in unleashing as much chaos with as little effort as possible – and to cause as much trouble for the West as it can. And the way things are currently looking, the strategy has proven successful.