The people of Burkina Faso struggle to find sanctuary as the conflict intensifies and the tactics of the militants evolve. The heart of the violence continues to be in the Sahel and all areas close to the Malian border. However, in recent months, the insecurity has spread geographically to the East, Centre-North and Southwestern regions. On the 16th May, the United Nations warned that “the Center-North region had become the new epicentre for attacks”. Militants now conceal explosives inside corpses to endanger first responders, assault teachers, burn schools, raid hospitals, and attack entire villages. Metsi Makhetha, the UN Resident Coordinator in Burkina Faso warned of an “unprecedented” rise in “sophisticated armed attacks in the Sahel”.
In recent weeks, they have now taken aim at the social and religious fabric. President Roch Marc Christian Kabore said that the “terrorists are changing their modus operandi, from stoking inter-communal conflict to trying to foment religious strife”.
- Burkina Faso is roughly 60% Muslim and 25% Christian, but generally considered religiously tolerant and secular.
- In response to the growing insurgency, last week the military launched operation Doofu (uproot) to cover the Sahel, Center-North and North regions.
- In the last 12 months, over 130,000 have been internally displaced.
- According to the UN, more than two thirds of the displaced are in 2019 alone, roughly 1,000 people every day.
- A UN humanitarian response plan identified 1.2 million people in need of assistance and called for $100 million in donations; it only has 27% funded.
“The city is filled with panic”
The escalating violence in Burkina Faso hit the headlines last week after a devastating attack on a Catholic church in Dablo, Centre-North conflict region. Six people, including a priest, were killed after gunmen opened fire outside a Catholic church in Burkina Faso on 12 May. Congregants were leaving church when about 20~30 men encircled them, according to a government statement and local sources. The attackers then burned the church and bars and looted a pharmacy and some others stores. This deadly attack follows the first known attack on a church that occurred in late April, when gunmen killed a Protestant pastor and five congregants in the town of Silgadji, located in Soum province in the Sahel.
The tragic irony of the attack in Dablo was that about 9,000 displaced people had taken refuge in the town according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The mayor of Dablo, Ousmane Zongo, told AFP that “the city is filled with panic,” and that “people are holed up in their homes, nothing is going on. The shops and stores are closed. It’s practically a ghost town.” The city of Kaya, approximately 90 kilometres south of Dablo, has become the new refuge for those displaced.
“With the macabre aim of dividing us”
A day following the attack in Dablo, four people were killed in Zimtenga of the Bam province in the Centre-North region. Paul Ouédraogo, president of the Episcopal Conference of Burkina Faso and Niger, told CNN unidentified armed men stopped a group of worshipers during a Catholic procession, set the children free, but killed four adults and burned a statue of the Virgin Mary. The same day, the Federation of Islamic Associations of Burkina (FAIB) condemned the attacks, calling on all citizens of Burkina Faso “without exception for religion or ethnicity … to unite against terrorism.”. In a statement, the government said, “these terrorist groups are now attacking religion with the macabre aim of dividing us.”
“The last obstacle to the coast”
On 19 May, in a statement posted on Facebook, former Prime Minister Yacouba Isaac Zida called for “union to form a shield against the forces of evil following recent attacks on places of worship.” However, it quite certain that it will take more than union to prevent the onslaught of now almost daily attacks against the populace and security forces.The attack in Dablo was just two days after a French special forces mission rescued four international hostages in northern Burkina Faso, but two French soldiers were killed in the operation.
The country’s security forces are widely considered among the weakest in Western Africa and the remote and isolated terrain of the Sahel often leaves them vulnerable. To strengthen its efforts, the government announced in March to withdraw its forces currently deployed abroad as part of a peacekeeping mission in Mali, roughly 25% of its total.
Militant groups in conflict-ridden Burkina Faso, including those linked to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, were slow to gain traction in the country after first making their presence known in 2016. However, in the last six months, the conflict has expanded to new fronts in the country and is advancing steadily to the capital Ouagadougou. Bakary Sambe, the head of the Timbuktu Institute, recently told AFP that the upsurge in violence “seems to indicate that Burkina Faso is the last obstacle that these groups want to get over to reach the coast”. This would threaten Benin, Ghana and Togo that have so far been spared from the violence.
Image: SPC. Britany Slessman / Wikimedia Commons / U.S Army (link)