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That night, around 2 a.m., Idrissa (first name has been changed) was woken up with a start by the rumble of a column of motorcycles in Solhan, her village in northeastern Burkina Faso. Terrified, the 20-year-old took refuge in his parents’ room. Outside, kalashnikovs shootings and screams « Allah Akbar » resonate. Trembling in the dark, Idrissa prays that the attackers don’t come looking for them. Three hours pass, interminable. Until this dead silence.
At daybreak, Saturday June 5, he decides to go out and walk through the deserted alleys. In front of him, the horror. The smell of soot mingled with that of blood. Houses, shops burnt down. About a hundred wounded, lying on the red earth, their bodies riddled with bullets. Bloodied women and children.
According to a latest provisional toll, 160 people were killed in the attack, the deadliest recorded in Burkina Faso since the start of the jihadist attacks in 2015. Among the victims are “About twenty children”, specifies a local elected official quoted by Agence France-Presse. Of “Large-scale operations” were still going on Sunday for “To find and neutralize the terrorists”. The assault has yet to be claimed.
On Saturday, Burkinabe President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré denounced a “Barbaric attack” and decreed a national mourning of seventy-two hours. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres said “Indignant”, highlighting “The urgent need for the international community to strengthen its support for one of its members in its fight against extremist violence”. The head of French diplomacy, Jean-Yves Le Drian, announced on Sunday, on his Twitter account, a trip ” this week “ in Burkina Faso to express “France’s solidarity once again”.
“It was carnage”
In this poor Sahelian country, long considered a pole of stability, jihadist fire and then intercommunity mistrust have spread, as in neighboring Mali. The violence has already killed several thousand people there in six years. Particularly in the area near the borders with Mali and Niger, to which Solhan belongs, located in the province of Yagha.
According to local sources, the attackers first targeted the “VDP” post, the “volunteers for the defense of the fatherland”, created in December 2019, civilians recruited and trained by the army to fight terrorism, before attacking a gold mine, adjacent to the village. Adama (the first name was also changed) was working on the site when he saw a group of men, “Interurbannés” and dressed “Military clothes”, arrive.
“The displaced continue to arrive, we do not have enough shelters to accommodate everyone”, a humanitarian worker
“They said they were going to kill all the villagers and then they started sniping at us”, tells the survivor in the Fulani language, on his hospital bed in Ouagadougou, where he was evacuated. If he managed to survive after being shot three times, hiding under a shed pretending to be “For dead”, the 40-year-old gold miner lost his “5 year old son”, killed at home. « My wife was sleeping, she was hurt, I don’t even know where she is now ”, breaths Adama. Three of his cousins were also executed.
Since then, astonishment and incomprehension reign. The body count was tedious. “It was carnage”, summarizes Issouf Sow, the mayor of Solhan, which had about 5,000 inhabitants before the events. On Saturday, the villagers had to collect and bury the remains, in a hurry, wrapped in makeshift mats, in mass graves.
Several local sources assure that armed men returned during the night to loot and set fire to the rest of the shops. Since then, all the inhabitants have fled, some in cart or motorbike, others on foot, to reach Sebba, the capital of the province, about fifteen kilometers away. “The displaced continue to arrive, we do not have enough shelters to accommodate everyone, there are many wounded, the health personnel are overwhelmed”, reports a humanitarian worker in Sebba, reached by phone. In less than 48 hours, more than 1,000 people flocked to the city.
The shock is immense in Burkina Faso, where never a massacre of such violence had been perpetrated. Messages of support and calls for blood donations are increasing. The blow is hard for the authorities. In early May, Burkinabe forces launched a large-scale operation in the northern and Sahel regions. On May 14, the Minister of Defense Chérif Sy went to Sebba. During this media trip, which was to appear as a symbol of reconquest in the face of the jihadist threat, he assured that the situation had returned to normal.
Two days after the attack, many questions arise. Why did the Sebba military detachment, twelve kilometers away, take so long to intervene? According to a security source on the spot, the first units arrived around 9 a.m. on Saturday in Solhan, seven hours after the alert launched by the inhabitants. The area is dangerous. According to our information, the track, difficult to access, especially at night, and the threat of explosive devices slowed down the teams’ movements. Shortly after the attack, a woman and two children were killed in a mine explosion on this axis.
According to a resident of Sebba, threats had been circulating for several days, targeting local VDPs, who allegedly carried out operations against suspected terrorists. In recent months, several groups of residents had volunteered to defend their village. But often ill-equipped and on the front line, they are increasingly targeted by jihadists.
At least 14 people were killed on Friday, including an auxiliary, in Tadaryat, a village in the north of the country. On the night of the attack, Solhan’s VDPs, “Between 20 and 30 members”, according to the mayor of the locality, had to fall back, powerless against the Kalashnikovs of the many attackers.
Sharia and religious tax
Since they began to be recruited by the military in early 2020, some volunteers have been accused of abuses and overstepping their mission. In Solhan, an important mining hub, they “Also ensured the security of the gold washing sites”, says security specialist Mahamoudou Savadogo. For this former gendarme, « the attack is a warning to groups [terroristes] against the inhabitants who would like to engage as VDP, and it is a sign that they want to take control of the mines ”.
Several armed groups operate in the region, mainly the Support Group for Islam and Muslims, affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and the organization Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Since 2020, the jihadists have ruled there “Law and terror”. In some villages, they have imposed sharia and zakat, the religious tax. “They order short pants and beards to be worn, women must veil themselves, they threaten to cut off the hands of thieves and flog those who commit adultery”, describes a resident of Sebba, on condition of anonymity.
The area emptied of state representatives. Many officials, city councilors and teachers had to flee in the face of threats. “Those who remain are terrorized and live under their yoke”, reports an elected official from Sebba, which has 18 villages. « Six » are now inaccessible, he says.