The terrorist threat, which has affected five regions of northern and eastern Burkina Faso in particular, has been “eclipsed by the Covid-19 pandemic”, according to a number of different local sources consulted by the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). For those directly affected by the terrorist attacks, the coronavirus is “a disaster within a disaster” these sources told ACN. All those spoken to by the charity, in the three Catholic dioceses of Dori, Kaya and Fada N’Gourma – all of which have been gravely impacted by the consequences of the terrorism – were in agreement that “the gravity of the situation is unchanged, and indeed in some places even worse” than before the pandemic, with almost a million people left homeless and a total absence of any effective response from either the national or the international authorities.
In the department of Bourzanga (Central northern region) and Djibo (Sahel region), the attacks are continuing on a daily basis. Entire regions have been cut off – not because of the lockdown resulting from the pandemic, but because of the total insecurity in which they are forced to live. The few still inhabited towns and villages are now sheltering thousands of homeless refugees, yet at the same time they are finding themselves increasingly cut off from the rest of the country.
This is particularly true of the town of Djibo, which has been cut off by the terrorists since mid-January this year (2020). According to ACN’s sources, “there is no transport, no food supplies, no possibility of entering or leaving the town. There is a shortage of water, vehicle fuel and food, frequent electricity cuts and so forth.”
According to the national emergency relief and rehabilitation agency CONASUR (Conseil National de Secours d’Urgence et de Réhabilitation), there are close on 150,000 internally displaced people now living in the provincial capital Djibo, while the town of Arbinda, which is similarly blockaded, is sheltering around 60,000 internally displaced people. These two towns are the last remaining enclaves of life in the province, and the last remaining protective barrier for thousands of people in the face of the terrorist occupation.
One displaced priest, forced from his parish in the diocese of Kaya in the central-northern region, told ACN of a similar situation. “The villages are almost completely deserted. Their entire rhythm of life has been disrupted, although there are still some signs of hope. In my parish, where many people have sought refuge, there are problems in obtaining basic necessities. The crucial problem is always water. It is very difficult to obtain this precious liquid, and this means that the women are forced to return to the neighbouring abandoned villages, with all the risks that implies, since they are under constant threat from the terrorists, in order to try and obtain water and transport it back on their tricycles.”
Again in Kaya region, there are important villages, such as Namisgma and Dablo, which are cut off from the towns which supplied them until now. And after repeated attacks, the terrorists have now established themselves in the large village of Pensa, leaving this small town effectively cut off from the rest of the territory.
A fervent plea for national and international authorities to react more vigourously
Those involved acknowledge that local and national authorities are fully aware of the crisis suffered by the people. But most of the time their efforts are quickly brought to nothing by a lack of adequate resources. Many people are disappointed that the sheer scale of the tragedy is not understood outside the country itself. “Out of the 75 villages in my parish, there are no more than 10 that are still inhabited. Everyone else has fled. And given that certain key villages have been abandoned, a large part of the territory is now in the hands of the terrorists, outside the control of the state”, explains another priest from the diocese of Kaya, who has also been forced to flee because of the threats made against him in his parish.
Although there are foreign troops present, principally French, many people in Burkina are sceptical and complain that they have seen no resulting response. They also criticise the fact that if their own national army had the same level of equipment and weaponry as the foreign troops, it would be able to respond more effectively.
Generally speaking, most people feel helpless in the face of this evil, and “all the more so at this time when all the emphasis is on the coronavirus pandemic, forgetting that this terrorism is causing as many and indeed more victims than Covid-19”, the priest explains.
There are many voices appealing to the authorities to show the same determination and seriousness in doing something to improve the situation of the refugees within its own borders and to fight against terrorism, as it is in conducting the fight against the pandemic. “Both dangers are real. And we are trapped in the middle. It is very difficult to know which is worse. At all events, the consequences are the same; both situations lead to death”, says one of ACN’s project partners in the Fada N’Gourma region who has just been given help to build a security wall around his parish centre after having suffered a number of violent attacks.
For almost 5 years now, Burkina Faso has been struggling with this unprecedented wave of terrorism. In February 2020 a delegation from ACN visited the country to see for itself the problems faced by Christians in the north of the country and to reaffirm the solidarity of the universal Church with its people. According to the information obtained by ACN during this visit, the number of internally displaced people has reached almost a million. Since last year over 1,000 people have been killed – including Christians, members of traditional African religions, Muslims and members of the Armed Forces. Thirteen priests and 193 community leaders, or pastoral coordinators, have been forced to leave their parishes and take refuge in other parishes that are still safe for the time being. It should be said, finally, that at least eight parishes have had to be closed and seven religious communities belonging to different congregations have had to flee to safer places.