Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – Fatimata Lankoande was sleeping at home when a volley of gunfire woke her up.
“Everyone was scared and panicked,” said the 63-year-old. “People were running everywhere. “
Lankoande said the armed assailants arrived on the night of June 4-5 on three cars and more than 30 motorcycles. They first attacked workers at an informal gold mine on the outskirts of Solhan, a village in northern Burkina Faso. They later went to the village market, torching shops and houses while continuing their killing.
“They started killing everyone they encountered,” said Lankoande, who has since fled to Dori, the nearest main town.
She said that some aspects of what she saw were too painful to tell.
“It was the most difficult time I have experienced in my entire life,” said Lankoandee. “I know seven of the victims. They were young people … [The attackers] were so many and when they entered the market they also killed women… and they burned down our hospital.
The scale of the June 4-5 massacre in Solhan sent shockwaves through a country that already experiences near-daily fatal attacks. With dozens of men, women and children killed, it is the deadliest attack in Burkina Faso since it was engulfed in 2015 by a conflict that worsened in the region of Burkina Faso. Sahel in West Africa.
The official government-provided death toll stands at 132, but several news outlets citing credible local sources reported that the number stood at 160.
An aid worker with knowledge of the situation in Solhan said: “We understand that most of the bodies have been buried, so it is now very difficult to establish exact figures.
A witness to the aftermath of the attack and the burials told Al Jazeera that all bodies have now been buried and said their number is believed to be over 132.
Regardless of the gap, the toll brings to more than 500 the number of people killed by armed groups in Burkina Faso since the start of the year.
Heni Nsaibia, analyst for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, which monitors attacks in Burkina Faso, said the Solhan massacre illustrated how security across the Sahel has not improved despite the presence of thousands. international and regional troops.
He further highlighted neighboring Niger, where the number of civilians killed in the first two months of 2021 had already exceeded the number killed by armed groups “in any previous year”.
French, American and European troops have for years concentrated their efforts in the region of the three borders, where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso converge.
Nsaibia acknowledged that there had been “some progress” in this area, but said: “This excessive concentration on the border between the three states [region] tends to neglect other areas where jihadist groups are increasingly established or expanding their operations.
No armed group, including the two largest operating in the region – Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS) – has claimed responsibility for the Solhan massacre. On Tuesday, JNIM issued a statement denying their responsibility and condemning the attack.
“Even though JNIM has officially denied any involvement, there is persistent suspected that JNIM fighters may have carried out the attack, ”Alex Thurston, assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and expert on armed groups in the Sahel, told Al Jazeera.
“This possibility raises questions as to whether the central management has full control over all units,” he said.
After the Solhan attack, the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, took on a reserved tone as the government declared three days of national mourning.
President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, reelected last year, denounced the “barbaric” and “despicable” massacre and called for unity “against these obscurantist forces”.
Armed groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda have invaded much of northern and eastern Burkina Faso, which is considered by many to be the epicenter of the wider conflict in the region.
Asked about the significance of the Solhan attack, Thurston said: “Many actors in the Sahel conflict are using brutality to try to control civilians, but the main effect is to make the global crisis more fragmented and violent.
Analysts and rights groups say the attack appears to have targeted members of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland (VDP), government-backed civilian militias involved in the fight against armed groups.
A few days after the massacre, Siaka Coulibally, a Burkinabé analyst, told Al Jazeera that it was “still difficult to find an official or rational explanation” for the attack.
“But early explanations tend to suggest that it is the attacks on the VDPs that are continuing,” Coulibally said. “In the east, there were entire villages destroyed and their populations killed because these villages seemed to be villages of origin of the VDP and their families.
The attack targeted an informal gold mine site, one of around 700 to 1,000 that exist in Burkina Faso. Fighters are known to target mines to earn funds. The government has called for a halt to gold mining in Yagha district where last week’s attack occurred.
Authorities in Yagha have also banned the use of motorcycles, the combatants’ preferred mode of transportation. This tactic, previously used by Nigeria in its fight against the armed group Boko Haram, aims to facilitate the identification of suspects by the security forces.
The humanitarian effect of the Solhan attack was also significant, adding to a snowball crisis that had already resulted in the internal displacement of 1.2 million people.
“Fearing for their lives, more than 3,300 people fled to the neighboring villages of Sebba and Sampelga, including more than 2,000 children and more than 500 women,” a statement from the United Nations agency read. refugees.
“They arrived with little or no goods. The majority have been generously welcomed by local families who share what little they have.