Kassim was meant to end up like the rest of the men in his Mali village: dead from a bullet through his head on the red dirt tracks snaking between the mud-walled homes that now stand silent under the baking sun.
But his life was spared on the day jihadists came.
He was playing football when gunmen emerged out of the bush. His friend fell to the ground in front of him amid the crack of Kalashnikovs. Kassim ran, heart pounding and bullets whizzing, into the vegetation.
"I was waiting to die," he told The Telegraph of the single hour that he lay shaking in the orange evening light while black-clad terrorists went door-to-door killing 42 of his friends, family and neighbours.
What he heard taking place is now considered the worst massacre of civilians in this region of Mali since a war few understand – or care about – began in 2012.
Islamist insurgencies have waxed and waned in their Middle East strongholds of Syria and Iraq. But while the Caliphate rose and fell, extremists have been fighting "forever wars" across the Sahel, the unstable and often violent strip of land stretching across Africa where the Sahara meets the tropical Savannah.
In the aftermath of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and parts of the Middle East, questions have been raised about the role of the West protecting this forgotten African region from insurgency.
Since President Emmanuel Macron this summer announced the withdrawal of half of the French soldiers that have formed the backbone of Western intervention and peacekeeping, many Malians have feared an Afghan-style disaster.
Just last week the president led tributes for the 52nd French soldier to have died in or around Mali. Russian mercenaries are poised to fill the vacuum.
Malians continue to die
After eight years of war, 2020 ended as the deadliest year ever for Mali, with 2,845 deaths compared to 544 recorded in 2012. The year 2021 seems to follow the same path.
The raid on Kassim’s village of Ouatagouna came at 6pm on August 8. The 33-year-old bricklayer said that about 80 jihadists emerged from nowhere on motorbikes.
They wore dark djellaba full-length robes and turbans, and carried rifles. Everyone they encountered was shot dead. Only the women were spared. The men were pulled out of their vehicles or houses, laid on the ground and shot in the head.
“When the shooting stopped, I came out of the room where I had taken refuge,” says Mohamed, 30, a shopkeeper who also survived.
"The street in front of my house was flooded with blood. I saw my uncle’s body among many men”.
In all, the coordinated attacks on Ouatagouna and the neighbouring Karou left 38 men and four children dead in the dust. The youngest was only ten years old, reveals a UN report obtained by The Telegraph.
British soldiers on international peacekeeping patrols recall the immediate aftermath of the shootings. The massacre shocked even veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan.
British Army soldiers are helping to fill a peacekeeping void left by France
Credit: Matteo Maillard
"I could smell blood and iron in those streets," said Eddie Charrington, 33, a sergeant and the leader of the “Fox-hound”, an armoured vehicle unit.
While the soldiers secured the perimeter, the UN forensics team collected evidence and investigators recorded testimony.
“The children were bringing me shell casings," says Harry, 35, another British soldier.
"It was hard, because these were the bullets that killed their families. A two-year-old child collapsed next to my vehicle. He had seen his uncle executed in front of him, and every time a door slammed, he went into narcolepsy."
A team of UN forensics experts are surveying the aftermath of the massacre
Credit: Matteo Maillard
Making a difference
Foreign forces, including some British, have had some success in their attempts to curtail the violence here. They have helped create a bubble of relative security around Bamako, the capital of Mali.
French forces also recently killed Adnane Abu Walid al-Sahrawi, leader of the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS), one of the two main jihadist groups in the Sahel, in a drone strike.
But recent gains have been undermined by growing tensions between the French government and the Malian military junta – which came to power in a coup on 18 August 2020.
The rising civilian death toll has been linked to an explosion of inter-community conflicts in central Mali, the repeated blunders of the Malian security forces and the fierceness of armed terrorist groups, caught between the French army and the Minusma (United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission In Mali).
British soldiers secure the village of Ouatagouna to allow UN Pol officers and the human rights division to carry out their mission to follow up on the investigation into the Ouatagouna massacre, 18 September.
Credit: Matteo Mailard
On 10 June, Mr Macron announced the end of the "Barkhane" operation and the gradual withdrawal of the 5,100 French troops deployed in the Sahel. Only 2,500 will remain in 2023.
The prime minister of the Malian transition, Choguel Maïga, reacted by denouncing France’s "abandonment in mid-air".
Meanwhile last month, Western powers were jolted by revelations that the Malian government had been holding secret negotiations with a Russian mercenary army called Wagner.
Several international partners, including France, Germany and the United States, threatened to stop all military collaboration with Mali if soldiers if a deal was made.
Wagner has been heavily linked to the Kremlin, and its private army is regularly accused of human rights violations in Syria and the Central African Republic.
Downtime for British UN peacekeepers in Mali
Credit: Matteo Mailard
It is in this context that the 250-strong British contingent, the Long Range Reconnaissance Group (LRRG), began its Newcombe operation, a peacekeeping mission aimed at protecting the populations of the Ansongo circle. In this border area with Niger, ISGS jihadists roam from village to village. At night, they levy the Zakat tax, loot shops, whip the inhabitants and steal cattle.
Today, the streets of Ouatagouna are empty and silent. Broken bowls and ripped open bags litter the sand. Most families have taken refuge in nearby towns. But hunger and a cholera epidemic are lurking. Only a few survivors have returned to the village. They sell trinkets in the almost deserted market, hoping to earn enough to eat.
“Thank God you are here," whispers a woman. "The state has abandoned us. There is no longer any reason to live here. The bandits have taken everything, destroyed everything."
A woman speaks with a UN representative
Credit: Matteo Maillard
She looks around, suspicious. Informers from the armed groups are everywhere. At the corner of the street, the school gate is smashed. In the fire-blackened classrooms, the last French lesson written on the blackboard reads: “October 2019”. It is the month when the jihadists came to burn the school.
In the town hall and the sub-prefecture, the fan blades hang down, melted by the fire. The mayor has been gone for two years. There is no authority, no protection. The Malian soldiers are holed up in a barracks far from here. Ouatagouna is no different from the other villages in the area.
All the chiefs have fled to the town after their lives were threatened by the armed groups.