The men gathered for a wedding, they said – one more somber than those of the past.
Strict rules have warped life in their central Mali village since the extremists invaded: No music or dancing. No mingling with women. Smoke a cigarette and get beaten.
Parties, even conservative ones, invite punishment, so they wanted to celebrate quickly in a remote field, according to two guests. Grilled mutton and beef were about to be served when bombs fell from the sky.
“We heard what sounded like a plane and then a loud noise,” said one guest, a 46-year-old teacher. The Washington Post is withholding the teacher’s name out of security concerns. “Suddenly there were wounded people everywhere. Body parts everywhere.”
What happened on the afternoon of Jan. 3 is hotly disputed. The French military took responsibility for an airstrike near Bounti in the Mopti region, saying in a Jan. 7 statement that a pair of Mirage 2000 fighter jets had dropped three explosives on “a gathering of armed terrorist group members” in an area known to be rife with them. The French armed forces said the airstrike killed about 30 men – all militants.
The Malian army supported that account from their biggest foreign ally, asserting, “There was no sign of a marriage, women or children.”
But villagers say there was a tragic misunderstanding: Only men were in the field because extremists had banned socializing with women. The two guests provided testimony that aligns with reports from Human Rights Watch and a Malian group that conducted an investigation into the airstrike. Those probes concluded that 19 civilian men – some in their late 60s and 70s – died in the blasts.
The French defense ministry referred to the Jan. 7 statement when asked to comment on the witnesses’ recollections.
Fighters loyal to al-Qaida and the Islamic State regularly clash with security forces on the land they call home, said Hamadoun Dicko, head of the Jeunesse Tabital Pulaaku, a local advocacy group. He said he lost a friend in the airstrike – a chronic smoker who openly defied the extremists’ rules.
“He never liked terrorists or terrorism,” Dicko said. “We want the world to know there was a huge mistake. These are civilians who died while celebrating a wedding.”
Farmers and herders of various ethnic backgrounds shared Mali’s countryside in fragile calm before the extremists arrived. Blood spilled over land disputes, residents say, but the violence was nothing like what people endure today.
The collapse of the Libyan government in 2011 sent a stream of mercenaries, once employed by Moammar Gadhafi, back to their native Mali. Bearing machine guns, some forged an alliance with al-Qaida militants who sought to conquer new territory.
French troops foiled an attempted takeover two years later, but the scourge has since scattered and spread. Extremists now occupy much of Mali’s north and center – as well as parts of neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger – after blending into local communities. That insidious tactic has bolstered their expansion, analysts say, while endangering countless citizens.
The country suffered its deadliest year on record in 2020, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, which tallied more than 2,800 casualties.
Fighters shoot up towns and army outposts. Ethnic groups blame each other for the unrest and then stage revenge attacks. Human rights groups have accused Malian soldiers of killing innocent villagers while searching for the enemy.
“People are trapped between all these actors intervening militarily in their region,” said Ousmane Diallo, a West Africa researcher at Amnesty International in Senegal.
France has more than 5,000 troops in West Africa, most of them in Mali. The airstrike near Bounti erupted days after five French soldiers died in a series of attacks in the region.
Advocacy groups, including Human Rights Watch, have called for an independent investigation. Doctors Without Borders personnel treated several of the airstrike victims, said Adama Drissa Coulibaly, the group’s deputy medical coordinator in Mali.
“The victims told us they were gathered for a marriage ceremony,” he said. “They saw things fall around them from the sky. There was a lot of noise – broken bones, limb losses.”
The French account of Jan. 3 starts with a Reaper drone. It followed two men on a motorcycle to the gathering in the field, where they joined about 40 others. They were extremists, the French defense ministry said in its statement, based on “intelligence and real-time elements.”
The drone detected no women or children.
“It was men exclusively,” French defense minister Florence Parly said in a Jan. 10 interview with a French news outlet. “These are facts – exact, proven, cross-checked, certified.”
Then came the bombs.
The teacher fled with a burn on his left arm.
A Bounti native, he had come to celebrate the marriage of family friends, a 25-year-old man and 16-year-old girl. (Slightly more than half of girls in Mali marry before turning 18.)
His cousin, a young man who was engaged to be married, died in the explosions.
People suspected the Malian army, targeting extremists, or extremists who had stolen some kind of aircraft from the army.
“They control our area,” the teacher said. “Some of our young people have joined them. But that does not mean the whole village is jihadists. That does not make us jihadists.”
Men and women no longer feel safe together at public events, he added.
“The radicals refuse to let men and women mix,” he said.
Ibrahim Diallo, a 32-year-old farmer, was on his way to the wedding when a blast shook the earth.
“We saw a plane and then immediately fire,” he said.
Diallo hurried back to town, rounded up his children and fled to the capital, Bamako. He didn’t want to stick around to find out what happened.
He blamed the extremists.
“They come from time to time to the village,” he said. “They forbid the children to play soccer. They require women to cover their heads with a scarf. And the men, if they catch you smoking a cigarette, you’re screwed. They’ll beat you until you’re sick.”
His ethnic group, the Fulani people, has become a scapegoat, he said. The extremists recruit from his community – and some of them have joined – but mostly, people are just trying to survive.
“You are powerless in the face of armed men,” he said.
The groom lost five of his family members in the airstrike, said Dicko, the Malian association leader.
The false accusations only amplify the grief, he said.
“We are simply asking the French for evidence – do they know the victims they say are jihadists?” he said. “We want to see the video. You cannot conduct a raid without recording video.”
Three weeks later, Bounti is nearly empty. People are afraid of dying at the hands of an extremist or those meant to protect Mali.
“Everyone is leaving,” Dicko said. “Everyone wants to save themselves. It has turned into a ghost town.”
The Washington Post’s Tapily reported from Bamako, Mali. Borso Tall in Dakar, Senegal, contributed to this report.