Even before the gunmen arrived, the students and teachers were already gripped by fear.
“We were already living in psychosis,” recounted an employee at a middle school in the village of Toulfe, located in a part of northern Burkina Faso where educational facilities were increasingly coming under attack.
And on the afternoon of November 12, 2018, a group of armed men stormed the school.
“The students were constantly looking out the window. They saw when the men arrived that day. The children started screaming, jumping out the classroom windows, running … One [attacker] pointed his gun at me,” the employee said.
“He took a paper out of his pocket, a message, and asked us to transmit it to the Burkinabe authorities. … The message said they no longer want any French education in Soum and Loroum provinces.”
The attackers then forced five school employees – the principal, two teachers and two administrators – out of their classrooms and offices. Some of the children who did not manage to escape burst into tears as they watched the men castigate and beat the staff.
Before departing, the attackers set one of the school’s offices ablaze. A parent, who arrived later at the scene, said: “At the school, we found the fire still burning. We found the teachers there who had been beaten, some so severely that they couldn’t speak … They were in shock.”
Education under attack
The school employee’s account was one of the many documented in a new report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that sheds light on Burkina Faso’s education crisis amid a worsening security situation engulfing the country and other parts of the Sahel in recent years.
Published on Tuesday, the rights group’s report warns of the “devastating impact” of armed group attacks on the children’s right to education. It estimated that since 2017 – and before the nationwide closure in March of all education facilities due to the coronavirus pandemic – more than 2,500 schools had closed in Burkina Faso, negatively impacting almost 350,000 students and more than 11,200 teachers.
It also said that armed groups allied with al-Qaeda or ISIL (ISIS) have burned, looted and destroyed dozens of schools, intimidated students and frightened parents into keeping their children out of school, and killed, abducted or threatened scores of teachers.
“Since 2017, these armed groups have pursued their vendetta against what they term ‘French education’ or any education that is Western secular,” Lauren Seibert, children’s rights researcher at HRW and author of the report, told Al Jazeera.
Last year, there was a six-fold increase in school closures as part of a surge in violence between Burkina Faso’s security forces and the armed groups, which resulted in a “flood of displacement”, Seibert noted.
The United Nations estimates that more than 830,000 people have been forced to flee their homes due to the violence.
The situation is also volatile in neighbouring Mali and Niger, where a multitude of armed groups control vast swaths of land that have long suffered from weak governance. Along the way, they have exploited intercommunal disputes and widely held resentments towards local governments to incite violence and recruit new members.
Backed by international allies, national armies have tried to quell the upheaval but muddled operations at times have killed more civilians than the armed groups themselves.
‘Remove our heads’
In its report, HRW documented 126 attacks and armed threats against Burkinabe education professionals, students and schools between 2017 and 2020, more than half of them last year. At least 12 education professionals were killed and 17 assaulted or abducted in the documented attacks, with many others forcibly detained and threatened.
A teacher victim of an attack in Burkina Faso’s Est region told HRW: “They started beating [my colleague] first, then me … They said, ‘You knew we didn’t want you here teaching, and still you dared to continue … You have defied us.’ They said if they come back and take us a second time, it will be to remove our heads”.
While the armed groups have appeared so far to spare children during attacks, they succeed in terrifying students by shooting in the air and “threatening everybody to stop going to school”, Seibert said.
On top of forcing children out of school, thereby exposing them to possible labour exploitation and child marriage for girls, these attacks can have a major impact on victims’ mental health “costing hundreds of thousands of children their futures”, Seibert said.
“I don’t have the spirit to go back,” a former student whose high school was assaulted told HRW.
“The attack really disturbed me, so I haven’t been back to school,” the student from Belehede village said. “I’m not even planning to restart.”