Kaya, Burkina Faso – The first order was to make sure our vehicle followed their car tracks.
“You deviate and might drive over a roadside bomb,” the commander of our police escort said, setting the parameters from the onset.
“We might fire our weapons in some areas, don’t be afraid – it’s a warning to any armed people who may be hiding,” he added, as the list of warnings went on.
“We cannot stay at one place for too long.”
We were going to areas where many people have been fleeing from to escape cross-border attacks and fighting.
Since former President Blaise Compaore was toppled in a popular uprising in 2014, the security situation in the northern and eastern parts of the country has deteriorated.
This was precipitated by a crisis in Libya that began in 2011 with the removal of its late ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Armed groups crossed the Sahara desert and started a campaign in northern Mali which has since spread across the Sahel region to Niger, Chad and other countries.
Burkina Faso lies between central Mali and western Niger – two of the most unstable areas in the Sahel. The country is also plagued with ethnic conflicts largely between farming and herding communities.
Compaore had managed to keep his country safe by giving leaders of the armed groups a safe haven – something the subsequent government led by President Christian Kabore refused to do.
On our trip to the north, we saw many homes that had been deserted. In one village where we stopped to film, it appeared people had left in a hurry. Food was still on plates outside a house. Pots, pans, waters jars were scattered everywhere and goats were tethered in a shed.
All along the route, our police escorts were nervously firing their weapons – this was very dangerous territory and the further north we went, the more hazardous it became.
We did, however, find an area where some people had recently returned.
Guienbila is one of the larger villages in the area. It has never been attacked but many of its residents have escaped anyway. Those we talked to said neighbouring villages are frequently ambushed and pillaged.
Guienbila was our last stop. By this time, the police were openly jittery.
“We have to leave, we have information that certain groups know you are here,” the commander told us barely 10 minutes after our arrival.
So we left behind people who were afraid of what might happen to them but determined to reclaim their lives.
Up to 500 people have been killed in Burkina Faso in the past few years, including in the capital, Ouagadougou, where hotels have come under attack.
The violence has forced approximately 270,000 people in the east and north, including the Sahel region, from their homes, while schools and health facilities have been shut down.
The displaced have sought refuge in camps run by the government and aid agencies or schools. Many have also been welcomed and hosted by locals in safer areas – such is the hospitality of the Burkinabe people.
A day after our trip up to the north, our security detail told us that 15 people had been killed after a minivan carrying them drove over a landmine in the same location we were filming abandoned villages.
Fourteen others were killed after an ambush on a convoy of tricycles carrying food aid about 50km away.
That information brought home the point of how volatile the situation is – it shook us and scared us.
Yet many people whose lives have been devastated live through these horrors every day.