Thousands flee after massacre in northern Burkina Faso

The government says 7,000 families have fled to Sebba after attackers killed 138 people in Solhan village.

Residents gather at the site of an attack in the village of Solhan, in Yagha province, bordering Niger [File: Burkina Faso Prime Minister's Press Service/Handout via Reuters]

More than 7,000 families have fled their homes in Burkina Faso’s northern region following the area’s worst massacre in years, the government has said.

The mass flight came after gunmen killed at least 138 people and wounded dozens of others in an attack on Solhan village in Yagha province on Friday.

“Steps have already been taken to give [displaced people] a minimum level of comfort, lodgings and food,” Prime Minister Christophe Dabire said on Tuesday.

“More than 7,000 families have moved to Sebba,” the capital of Yagha, about 15km (10 miles) from Solhan, he added.

In Geneva, UNHCR spokesman Babar Baloch tallied the number of people fleeing violence at about 3,300 people, including more than 2,000 children and nearly 500 women.

Baloch said the death toll of 138 made the attack the “deadliest since 2015”.

Burkinabe Communications Minister Ousseni Tamboura said the village “has been completely emptied of people”. One local elected official said most of those who left Solhan had already been fleeing armed group violence, including in the Mansila district to the west.

“They killed so many people without even separating the women and children,” Mannou Tambanga, a Solhan resident, told Al Jazeera. “They killed, they burned all the goods they saw. They ransacked,” he added.

The prime minister said the attack would not go unpunished, adding that extra forces had already been deployed in the region.

The slaughter in Solhan followed the killing of 14 people in the village of Tadaryat in the same region, where an armed group linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) have been targeting civilians and soldiers.

Burkina Faso’s Prime Minister Christophe Joseph Marie Dabire stands among the residents during a visit to the site of an attack in the village of Solhan, in Yagha province [File: Burkina Faso Prime Minister’s Press Service/Handout Reuters]

Burkina Faso’s military is seen as ill-equipped and undertrained to face increasing security threats, with experts warning of the implications in terms of people’s trust.

“Since the arrival of terrorism in 2015, this is the first time that there have been so many deaths in a single operation, and above all so many civilian deaths,” political analyst Siaka Coulibaly told Al Jazeera. “This is why the Burkinabe population is very sad and questions about the ability of the country, and the defence and security system to stem the terrorist insurgency are growing,” said Coulibaly.

Urgent need

Displaced people “arrived with few or no belongings”, Baloch said, adding that most “were generously welcomed by local families who are sharing what little they have.”  Baloch also said the new arrivals urgently needed water, sanitation and shelter, plus essential aid items and medical care.

The UNHCR and its partners were building 200 shelters and providing assistance, but more resources were needed to scale up the response.

Baloch said the massacre came just a few weeks after some attackers shot at the vehicles of the UNHCR and other aid organisations on the road between the city of Dori and the Goudoubo camp, housing some 12,200 Malian refugees and asylum seekers.

While no one was injured in that attack, he warned that “growing insecurity and the presence of armed groups in several regions of Burkina Faso increasingly hamper the delivery of aid and protection for those in need”.

The UNHCR, he said, “calls for concerted action to reinforce the protection of civilians and reminds all parties that humanitarian organisations are carrying out life-saving interventions in an independent and impartial manner.”

Since 2015, Burkina Faso has struggled to fight back against increasingly frequent and deadly attacks from armed groups, including the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (GSIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (EIGS).

The attacks, which have killed at least 1,400 people, first started in the north near the Mali border, but have since spread to other regions, particularly in the east.

“We’ve been fighting terrorism for some time and we’ve had some victories,” Prime Minister Dabire said. “But every time there are new challenges that appear.”

Since 2019, violence in the country has forced more than 1.2 million people to flee their homes, according to the UNHCR numbers.

Since the start of this year, some 150,000 people have become internally displaced in the country, Baloch said, adding that 84 percent of them were women and children.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies