Feeding her children outside her small tent in Sebba village in Burkina Faso’s northern region, 34-year-old Jessica Sinare stared at her sympathizers, hoping that one of them would announce the miraculous resurrection of her husband. He was murdered in an attack that left more than 130 people dead early in June in the neighboring village of Solhan.
“I want my husband. I need him now,” the mother of four cried during a WhatsApp interview. “They’ve broken my heart and I will never forgive them. They killed him in front of my kids. I pray God punishes them for their deeds and for their evil work.”
On June 5, gunmen raided the village of Solhan, near the border with Niger, and massacred men, women and children in the middle of the night. The gunmen are also reported to have burned houses, markets and threatened villagers for further attacks.
Sinare and more than 10,000 families escaped to the nearby villages of Sebba and Sampelga to seek refuge. Sinare said the groups of armed men dragged people out of their houses and shot or hacked them to death. They also threatened to come back and massacre the remaining Christians in the region if they refuse to convert to Islam, she said.
“I had to save my children by seeking refuge in Sebba,” about 12 miles from Solhan, Sinare said. “I will never go back there. I don’t want my children to die. The attackers are targeting Christian villages.”
Sinare expressed concern about the future of her family.
“Who is going to provide food and education for my children?” she asked. “I want to ask people to continue praying for me and my children so we may have strength. Life is not easy here.”
The mass flight has escalated the humanitarian crisis in the West African country that already has 1.2 million people displaced by violence. Most of the people who arrive in Sebba and Sampelga have few or no belongings. UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency, has reported that the majority of people are being helped by local families, who share the little they have.
Alex Mande, a catechist in the Diocese of Dori, said people have been donating food, clothing, blankets, counseling and kitchen utensils to those displaced. A number of their parishes were closed last year due to terrorism, so some of them were offering shelter to those who fled their homes, he said.
“The situation here is worse, and we are trying to help where we can,” he said by phone from northern Burkina Faso. “Women and children are suffering. They have no clothes and not enough food to eat. Others are sick from the injuries and trauma they went through during the attacks. They are still not safe here, because the gunmen have severely attacked churches in these villages, forcing us to close our parishes.”
The country of more than 20 million people has faced repeated terror attacks since 2015, including kidnap for ransom; however, since April, there have been seven major attacks. The United Nations says hundreds of people have been killed in the past five years. The strings of attacks are attributed to groups affiliated with al-Qaida or the Islamic State group.
But what has shocked residents and religious leaders are news that the Solhan attack was carried out primarily by child soldiers and that the attacks are targeting Christians. Media reported government officials say boys ages 12-14 participated in the Solhan massacre.
The country’s population is around two-thirds Muslim and one-third Christian. In May 2019, jihadists killed several worshippers, including a priest, during a Catholic service. In February, gunmen attacked a church and killed 24 men, including the pastor, his son and two nephews.
Bishop Laurent Dabiré of Dori told Aid to the Church in Need during a recent interview that Solhan was a vibrant Christian community.
“Just like everyone else in Burkina who is being targeted by terrorism, the Christians were overcome by fear. However, as Christians, they have more reason to fear a forced imposition of Islam. Their religious freedom and even their lives are at stake,” said the bishop.
But speaking to CNS in late June, Bishop Dabiré said Christians were not the only target, and he urged residents not to let themselves be divided along religious lines. He said the church has been praying for the victims of the latest attack and working with other partners to provide food, emergency supplies and counseling services to the families.
“Christians and Muslims are living peacefully and no one should separate them,” he said, noting that the latest attack was the worst in the country’s history. “These are terrorists who are targeting both Christians and Muslims, and we should not allow them to divide us by turning Christians against Muslims. We will continue to have dialogue with other religious leaders to bring peace in the country.”
Residents in the northern part of the country insist the attacks were really targeting Christians and the few Muslims and imams who are opposing the violent activities and beliefs of the extremists.
“I think the group wants to impose a harsh version of Shariah (Islamic law) in the regions they control,” said Joseph Sere, a Catholic and religion teacher in northern Burkina Faso. “Therefore, anyone who opposes their beliefs must be killed, and in this case, Christians are the target.”
Sere told CNS that before he fled his village in 2019, he used to sleep in the bush at night. He said before they would strike, he would hear attackers asking about homes of Christians and imams opposing their activities.
“I used to live in fear, and I had to hide my family first before I finally fled my village. There were several attacks in 2019 targeting Christians, and I saw my friends being murdered daily,” he said. “Several churches have closed their doors and meet in secret because of the fear.”
Regional church leaders hope there can be a solution to the terror problem. The cross-border conflict affects many countries in the Sahel, including Niger, Mali, Chad, Benin and Ivory Coast.
Father Norbert Éric Abekan, a parish priest in Abidjan Archdiocese in Ivory Coast, urged leaders in the countries neighboring Burkina Faso to collaborate and tackle terrorism.
“I condemn with the greatest vigor this cowardly and barbaric act that has once again struck this sister country,” he said in a statement, referring to the June attack in Burkina Faso. “African heads of state are strongly called upon and must imperatively bring back peace in our countries by providing them with effective strategies to counter insecurity.”