Increasing extremist violence in eastern Burkina Faso has displaced thousands of people in recent months, creating fresh humanitarian needs in a part of the West African country where aid groups say they have limited presence or resources to intervene.
During a visit in early December, aid workers and displaced people told The New Humanitarian that the lack of support means many uprooted people in Fada N’gourma – the main town in the east – are living in public buildings or under trees.
Some aid workers added that without more assistance displaced people may be forced to return to their villages to try to support their families – despite the danger of being attacked again.
Over half a million people are displaced across the country in one of the world’s fastest-growing displacement crises. Most are concentrated in the north, where extremists launch the majority of their attacks and where aid organisations have also focused their activities.
A lack of resources is impacting aid efforts across the country’s 13 regions – all of which are hosting displaced people – with last year’s humanitarian response plan less than 50 percent funded.
That gap is now becoming increasingly stark in eastern towns like Fada N’gourma, where the total number of displaced people soared from 6,000 to 17,000 between November and mid-December according to Action Against Hunger, an international aid group. The UN’s food agency, WFP, estimates the number is twice that.
Almost 90 percent of displaced people in the town can’t afford food, according to a humanitarian analysis conducted by several aid agencies in December and shared with TNH.
“There’s a real concern for how to feed the kids,” said Yonli Yelemba, a 35-year-old farmer who recently fled his village in the east.
Conflict spreads east
Based first in Burkina Faso’s northern regions – where they remain most active – extremists expanded in 2018 into the east, tapping into a long list of local grievances linked to poverty, poor social services, and the conservation of protected parks.
When TNH first visited the area in late 2018, attacks were mainly against security forces, with dozens of troops killed in roadside bombs and ambushes.
Now, however, the militants are increasingly targeting civilians. More than five times the number of civilians were killed last year compared to 2018, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), which collects and analyses conflict information.
At least 14 people were killed in the region last month when attackers opened fire in a church – and at least 37 were killed in November when a convoy carrying workers for the Canadian gold mining company, Semafo, was ambushed by gunmen.
Héni Nsaibia, a researcher at ACLED, said the recent violence has been triggered by tit-for-tat attacks between extremists and the Koglweogo – a self-defence militia that opposes the jihadists and is accused of widespread human rights abuses.
“It seems to be part of a broader effort by jihadis to get rid of the militias in areas under their influence,” said Nsaibia.
‘Zero weeks of food’
Sibri Natana, 20, is among those who recently fled.
Natana – who is married to the farmer Yelemba – said she was forced to watch as jihadists bound her 17-year-old brother's hands behind his back and slit his throat. It was a stark warning to her and the 20 other women watching to leave and never return.
“They told us that if we didn’t leave, there would be a river of blood,” a still-shaken Natana told TNH in a restaurant in Fada N’gourma.
Since arriving in the town, Yelemba said his family had not received any help from aid groups and had not exactly been reassured by the local mayor, who told newly displaced people in December to “be patient”.
Yelemba said he doesn’t have land to cultivate or enough money to buy food. He is not alone: according to the humanitarian analysis shared with TNH, an average displaced household in Fada N’gourma is able to provide “zero weeks of food for themselves”.
In December, UNICEF – which is set to open an office in Fada N’gourma soon – and four other aid groups, distributed relief kits, which included soap, blankets, and plastic sheeting to around 300 families in the east.
But, at least when TNH visited, large gaps in humanitarian assistance remained. No shelter had been distributed to people who had been displaced for weeks – and just a smattering of households had received plastic tarps and rope in the months preceding, aid workers said.
“Having abandoned everything, they have no resources to take care of themselves,” said Youssouf Zongo, who works for Initiative: Eau – a US-based aid group focused on increasing the safety and security of drinking water services – in Fada N’gourma.
Rougly 60 percent of displaced people are renting houses, but few have enough money to pay landlords for more than a few months.
Soumaila Sawadogo – who fled his home after armed men attacked a nearby village in November – said he spends $42 per month renting five small rooms on the edge of town for his two wives and eight children.
He only had enough money to last until May, however, and lack of funds was also preventing six of his eight children from attending school, which costs roughly $12 per child per year.
“I feel lost,” he said, simply.
The number of aid groups operating in Fada N’gourma is unclear. Action Against Hunger said there were at least 10 agencies based in the town, but other humanitarians thought only half that number were focused on the crisis.
Recently, there has been a push for more humanitarians to open offices in Burkina Faso, said Ioli Kimyaci, the representative for the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in the country.
She said that Fada N’gourma was one of five locations targeted by a new integrated UN initiative focused on scaling up efforts in Burkina Faso. But while most of the other locations have been operational for a while, the response in Fada N’gourma is just getting started, Kimyaci said. Some aid groups like the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) are meanwhile not expanding their activities to the east due to a lack of resources.
“While the needs are increasing dramatically everywhere in the country, the international community and donors are still far from responding accordingly,” said Manenji Mangundu, NRC’s country director for Burkina Faso and Niger.
Mangundu warned that the aid response will be seriously hampered if the international community doesn’t start placing as much emphasis on the humanitarian situation as it is on security – a common complaint made by aid groups and Sahel analysts.
“Most of the attention has been on the military response,” Mangundu said. “But displaced people in Burkina Faso need more food than they do soldiers.”
That’s certainly the case for Yelemba, the displaced man who said his family is going hungry in Fada N’gourma but can’t leave the town due to threats from jihadists.
As a community leader, Yelemba was directly targeted by the extremists, as was his brother, who fled alongside him and continues to receive calls from men threatening to hunt him down even if he’s hiding in a “rat hole”.
With reporting support from Issa Napon.
It was The New Humanitarian’s investigation with the Thomson Reuters Foundation that uncovered sexual abuse by aid workers during the Ebola response in the Democratic Republic of Congo and led the World Health Organization to launch an independent review and reform its practices.
This demonstrates the important impact that our journalism can have.
But this won’t be the last case of aid worker sex abuse. This also won’t be the last time the aid sector has to ask itself difficult questions about why justice for victims of sexual abuse and exploitation has been sorely lacking.
We’re already working on our next investigation, but reporting like this takes months, sometimes years, and can’t be done alone.
The support of our readers and donors helps keep our journalism free and accessible for all. Donations mean we can keep holding power in the aid sector accountable, and shine a light on similar abuses.