Members of civilian militias gather in Zagtouli for a rally. Credit: Henry Wilkins
By Henry Wilkins
OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso, Jun 7 2021 (IPS)
On the night of Friday 4th June, a group of unidentified armed men stormed the village of Solhan in the north of Burkina Faso, shooting indiscriminately, looting the market and burning homes. A report by RFI, the French radio station said there could have been as many as 200 attackers by some accounts of survivors.
Security sources confirmed children were targeted, with 7 minors killed according to official figures. Now, the total number of dead stands at, at least 160 – a massacre.
The extent of the carnage is still unknown as figures for the dead and injured continue to rise. No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.
Heni Nsaibia, a senior analyst at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, pointed out, “The massacre in Solhan is the single deadliest attack recorded in Burkina Faso. The only comparable event at this scale was the massacre in Yirgou, in January 2019.”
The attack marks a recent surge in violence after a period of declining attacks from March 2021, in part brought on by negotiations between the government and the armed groups which have plagued Burkina Faso since 2015.
The government of Burkina Faso has been battling armed groups including Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM), Al Qaeda’s local affiliate, with assistance from French and US troops, but is struggling to contain the violence.
On May 17th, Burkina Faso’s foreign minister, Cherif Sy visited Sebba, the nearest town to Solhan. He told reporters, “We can say that the situation is favorable and peace has returned to Sebba.”
On Saturday Sebba’s hospital was overwhelmed by victims of the Solhan attacks.
In May, some twitter users complained such rhetoric could lead to a retaliation by terror groups, while others called for Sy’s resignation on Sunday. Analysts said the attack was a demonstration of force by terror groups.
IDPs travelling with their possessions along the road from Barsalogho to Kaya. Credit: Henry Wilkins
Lassane Sawadogo, executive secretary of the ruling People’s Movement for Progress Party, admits that more needs to be done to stem the violence. He told IPS, “We are faced with the phenomenon of insecurity which is observed over a large part of our territory. Since then, efforts have been made to overcome this phenomenon. But we must admit that these efforts are not bearing the expected fruits.”
The attack was carefully planned and coordinated. The armed group carried out a simultaneous attack on the nearby army base and placed IEDs on the road between it and Solhan in order to stop security forces responding to the massacre.
Mahamadou Sawadogo is a Burkinabe security analyst and former military police officer. He says the tactics used give clues as to which group carried out the attack. “According to the modus operandi, that could lead us to believe it’s ISGS. But it is an area of influence of JNIM as well,” he told IPS.
Sawadogo says he believes the attack is related to the recruitment of Volunteers for the Defence of the Homeland, a civilian militia set up by the government in 2020 to assist the military in operations.
“Through this attack, the other message is that the VDPs have become a targeted group of these terrorist groups. This attack was partly made to discourage the VDPs, so that they do not continue to enlist and help [the military],” Sawadogo said.
Solhan, is also the site of an informal gold mine which terror groups frequently exploit for funding. Large numbers of children frequently work the sites.
On Sunday, fake news of further attacks in the vicinity of Solhan and beyond began to spread on social media and in local media outlets. The military were forced to release a communique to deny the attacks, while the editor of a local radio station owned by Burkina Faso’s foreign minister was sacked for disseminating fake news.
Apart from a statement on Twitter, the president, Roch Kabore, is yet to speak publicly about the attack. Three days of public mourning have been declared.
The humanitarian fallout from the attack is also likely to be significant, causing displacement of families fleeing the violence. 1.2 million people are already displaced in Burkina Faso.
A statement by the Norweigan Refugee Council said, “While each attack is measured by its death toll, there are more elusive counts to keep: the number of families forced into hurried escapes, or the number of weeks, months and years they will spend away from home. And let’s not forget what can’t be quantified at all: the trauma of children witnessing such horrifying violence.”
As three days of national mourning was declared, the streets of Ouagadougou took on a somber atmosphere. Citizens gave prayers for the families of the victims, but will no doubt be wondering what happens next as security continues to deteriorate.