Increasing numbers of children are being killed or targeted for recruitment by armed groups in conflicts raging at Niger’s borders with Mali and Burkina Faso, Amnesty International said in a report published Monday.
"In Niger’s Tillaberi region, an entire generation is growing up surrounded by death and destruction," said Matt Wells, Amnesty's deputy director for crisis response.
"Armed groups have repeatedly attacked schools and reserves, and are targeting children for recruitment,” he added in a statement.
Amnesty blamed the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the al-Qaida-affiliated Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), for causing the "devastating impact on children" in the region.
The rights group released a 57-page report documenting the impact on children of the conflict in Niger’s western Tillaberi, an area of 100,000 square kilometers (38,000 square miles) on the borders of Mali and Burkina Faso that is home to different ethnic groups such as Djerma, Fulani, Tuareg and Hausa.
According to conflict tracking organization ACLED, cited by Amnesty, violence against civilians has led to 544 conflict-related deaths from January to July 23 this year, already exceeding the 397 people killed in the whole of 2020.
"Armed groups have killed more than 60 children in Niger’s tri-border area in 2021," the report said, adding that the ISGS, which operates primarily on the border with Mali, appears responsible for most of the large-scale killing.
During the research for the report, Amnesty spoke to 16 boys who had narrowly survived ISGS attacks on their villages.
"We all are used to hearing gunshots and to seeing [dead] people layered on top of [dead] people," one boy, age 13 or 14, said.
Another boy, who witnessed the killing of his 12-year-old friend Wahab in March, told the researchers: "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,” he said.
According to Amnesty, both “ISGS and JNIM have committed war crimes and other abuses in the conflict, including the murder of civilians and targeting of schools.
"Many children are experiencing trauma after witnessing deadly attacks on their villages. In some areas, women and girls have been barred from activities outside the home, and risk abduction or forced marriage to fighters," the report said.
Witnesses said JNIM has picked out males ages 15 to 17, and possibly younger, as recruits, offering bribes of food, money and clothes.
"The Nigerien government and its international partners must urgently take action to monitor and prevent further abuses and protect the basic rights of all those affected by this deadly conflict — especially children," Wells said.
Amnesty International said it had interviewed 119 people, including 22 children, three young adults between 18 and 20, and 36 parents for the study.
Others interviewed included staff from NGOs and humanitarian agencies, United Nations officials and government officials.