Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – Fatimata Lankoande was asleep in her house when a gunshot woke her up.
“Everyone was scared and panicked,” he said at 63 years old. “People were running around.”
Lankoande said armed assailants arrived from the night of June 4-5 on three cars and more than 30 motorcycles. Workers were first attacked in an informal gold mine on the outskirts of Solhan, a village in northern Burkina Faso. Later, they went to the village market, brushing shops and houses as they continued their killing crowd.
“They started killing everyone they met,” said Lankoande, who has left Dori, the nearest main town.
She said some aspects of what she saw were too painful to tell.
“It was the hardest moment I’ve experienced in my entire life,” Lankoandee said. “I know seven victims. They were young … [The attackers] they were so numerous and when they came to the market they also killed women … and they burned our hospital ”.
The scale of the Massacre from 4 to 5 June in Solhan it has sent shockwaves through a country that is already witnessing deadly attacks almost every day. With dozens of men, women and children killed, it is the single deadliest attack in Burkina Faso since it was flooded in 2015 by a deadly conflict that has erupted in the Sahel region in West Africa.
The official death toll provided by the government is 132, but several shops citing credible local sources have said the number is as high as 160.
An assistant familiar with the situation in Solhan said: “We understand that most of the bodies have been buried, so it is very difficult to establish exact figures.”
A witness to the consequences of the attack and the burials told Al Jazeera that all the bodies have now been buried and said the numbers were higher than 132.
Regardless of the disagreement, the tolls have brought the number of people killed by armed groups in Burkina Faso since the beginning of the year to more than 500.
Heni Nsaibia, an analyst with the Armed Conflict Situation and Event Data Project, which monitors the attacks in Burkina Faso, said the Solhan massacre illustrated how security in the Sahel has not improved despite the presence of thousands of international and regional troops.
He also pointed to neighboring Niger, where civilian deaths in the first two months of 2021 alone had already exceeded the number of people killed by armed groups “from any previous year”.
French, American and European troops have for years concentrated their efforts in the tri-border region, where the borders of Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso converge.
Nsaibia acknowledged that there has been “some progress” in this area, but said: “This is too much focus on the tri-state border. [region] it tends to neglect other areas where jihadi groups are increasingly entrenched or expanding their operations. ”
No armed group, including the two largest operators in the region – Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) and the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) – has claimed responsibility for the Solhan massacre. On Tuesday, JNIM issued a statement denying that they were responsible and condemning the attack.
“Even though JNIM has officially denied participation, there are persistent suspects that JNIM fighters may have carried out the attack, “Alex Thurston, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Cincinnati and an expert on armed groups in the Sahel, told Al Jazeera.
“This possibility raises questions about whether central leadership has full control over all units,” he said.
Following Solhan’s attack, the streets of the capital, Ouagadougou, took on a reserved tone as the government declared three days of national mourning.
Roch President Marc Christian Kabore, who won re-election last year, denounced the “barbaric” and “despicable” massacre and called for unity “against these obscurantist forces”.
Armed groups linked to ISIL and al-Qaeda have invaded large parts of northern and eastern Burkina Faso, which is seen by many as the epicenter of the broadest conflict in the region.
Asked about the significance of Solhan’s attack, Thurston said: “Many actors in the Sahelian conflict use brutality in an attempt to control civilians, but the main effect is to make the general crisis more fragmented and more violent. “
Analysts and rights groups say the attack appears to have targeted members of the Volunteers for the Defense of the Fatherland (VDP), government-backed civilian militias that help fight armed groups.
Days after the massacre, Siaka Coulibally, a Burkinabe analyst, told Al Jazeera that it was “always difficult to find an official or rational explanation” for the attack.
“But early explanations tend to suggest that it is the attacks against VDPs that continue,” Coulibally said. “In the East, entire countries were destroyed and their populations killed because these countries appeared to be countries of origin of the VDP and their families.”
The attack targeted an informal gold mine site, one of about 700 to 1,000 that exist in Burkina Faso. The fighters are known to target mines to raise funds. The government has asked to plant the gold mine in Yagha district where last week’s attack took place.
Authorities in Yagha have also banned the use of motorcycles, the preferred method of transportation for fighters. The tactic, which was first used by Nigeria in its fight against the armed group Boko Haram, is aimed at making it easier for security forces to identify the suspects.
The humanitarian effect of the Solhan attack was also significant, adding to a snow crisis that had already caused the internal displacement of 1.2 million people.
“Fearing for their lives, more than 3,300 people fled to the neighboring villages of Sebba and Sampelga, including more than 2,000 children and more than 500 women, ”reads a statement from the United Nations refugee agency.
“They came with little or no equipment.” The majority have been generously welcomed by local families who share what little they have. ”