DAKAR – Violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group has made Burkina Faso a country with one of the world's fastest-growing populations of internally displaced people, with the number mushrooming by more than 2,000% since 2019, according to government data.
Figures released last month showed more than 2 million people are internally displaced in the West African nation, the majority of them women and children, fueling a dire humanitarian crisis as the conflict pushed people from their homes, off their farms and into congested urban areas or makeshift camps.
Aid groups and the government are scrambling to respond amid a lack of funds and growing needs. One in four people requires aid, and tens of thousands are facing catastrophic levels of hunger. Yet not even half of the $800 million humanitarian response budget requested last year by aid groups was funded, according to the United Nations.
“The spectrum of consequences (for people) is vast but grim at every point. A lot of people might die, and they're dying because they weren’t able to access food and health services, because they weren’t properly protected, and the humanitarian assistance and the government response wasn’t sufficient,” Alexandra Lamarche, a senior fellow at advocacy group Refugees International, said.
The violence has divided a once-peaceful nation, leading to two coups last year. Military leaders vowed to to stem the insecurity, but jihadi attacks have continued and spread since Capt. Ibrahim Traore seized power in September.
The government retains control of less than 50% of the country, largely in rural areas, according to conflict analysts. Al-Qaida and Islamic State-affiliated groups control or threaten large areas, said Rida Lyammouri, senior fellow at the Policy Center for the New South, a Morocco-based think tank.
“State security forces don’t have the resources (human and equipment) to fight both groups at all fronts,” he said.
The jihadis' strategy of blocking towns, preventing people from moving freely and goods from flowing in, has compounded the displacement crisis. Some 800,000 people in more than 20 towns are under siege, say aid groups.
“The situation is very difficult. ... People don’t have food, children don’t have school,” Bibata Sangli, 53, who left the eastern town of Pama in January 2022 just before it came under siege. She still has family there who are unable to leave, Sangli said.
A community leader who last year met Jafar Dicko, the top jihadi in Burkina Faso, said Dicko’s group blockades towns that don’t accept its rules, such as banning alcohol and requiring women to be veiled their faces. The leader spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
In January, the United Nations began using Chinook heavy-lift helicopters to airlift food to areas inaccessible by road - an extremely costly approach. The three Chinooks were reduced to one in May, making it harder to reach many people as quickly.
While the humanitarian situation deteriorates, so has the ability of aid groups to operate.
Since the military takeovers of Burkina Faso's government began in January 2022, incidents against aid organizations perpetrated by the security forces increased from one in 2021 to 11 last year, according to unpublished data for aid groups seen by The Associated Press. The incidents included workers being arrested, detained and injured.
In November, security forces killed a humanitarian worker with a Burkina Faso aid organization in the Sahel region, the vast expanse below the Sahara Desert, according to a text message sent to an aid worker WhatsApp group seen by the AP.
Rights groups, analysts and civilians say Traore, the junta leader, is only focused on achieving military gains and cares little about human rights, freedom of speech or holding people accountable for indiscriminate killings of individuals suspected of supporting the militants.
Burkina Faso’s security forces killed at least 150 civilians in the north in April, according to local residents from the village of Karma, where most of the violence took place. Prosecutors said they opened an investigation into the killings.
Earlier this year, an AP investigation into a video circulating on social media determined that Burkina Faso’s security forces killed children at a military base in the country's north.
While the government wages war, civilians bear the brunt and are running out of hope.
After jihadis attacked his village in eastern Burkina Faso in April, killing people and stealing cattle, a father of five, who did not want to be identified for security reasons, fled to the region's main town of Fada N’Gourma.
But now his family doesn’t have food or access to health care, and the assistance supplied by humanitarian groups isn't enough, he said.
“Since we’ve been displaced, our situation keeps getting worse,” the 46-year-old man said. “I miss my home.”
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