19 killed by gunmen in Burkina Faso: 'There's no Christian anymore in this town'

Bottles of water are seen in front of Cappuccino restaurant after an attack on the restaurant and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, January 18, 2016.
Bottles of water are seen in front of Cappuccino restaurant after an attack on the restaurant and the Splendid Hotel in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, January 18, 2016. | (Photo: Reuters/Joe Penney)

Dozens of armed unidentified gunmen killed at least 19 and injured 13 others in northern Burkina Faso on Sunday. 

A local government official told AFP on the condition of anonymity that the attack occurred between 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. and that 19 bodies were found at the time. The official said a search was underway to find others who were killed.

Hours before the gunmen attacked, the source said the gunmen stopped three vehicles in the town of Arbinda and set them on fire. The official detailed that one of the drivers was killed.

The killing in Arbinda comes as armed groups have spread across the Shael region and committed atrocities in Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso. The United Nations reports that the violence has led to the displacement of at least 4.2 million people, 1 million more than in 2018.

In Burkina Faso, innocent lives are being lost due to the rise of jihadist attacks and government counterterror operations.

In April, more than 60 people were killed in an attack in Arbinda which has been hit hard by violence.

“There is no Christian anymore in this town [Arbinda],” an anonymous contact told the Christian aid charity Barnabus Fund. “It's proven that they were looking for Christians. Families who hide Christians are killed. Arbinda had now lost a total of no less than 100 people within six months.”

Since 2016, armed Islamist groups linked to both al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Islamic State in Greater Sahara have been attacking civilian targets, police stations and military posts in Burkina Faso, according to Human Rights Watch

Although the violence has spread throughout the country, the “epicenter” of the violence sits in the northern Sahel, a region that borders Mali and Niger.

Contacts told Barnabus Fund that as many as 82 pastors, 1,145 Christians and 151 households have fled from violence in different locations in the Muslim-majority nation.

In April, a pastor and five churchgoers were killed in the town of Silgadji in the northern part of the country. At the time it was believed that the Silgadji church attack was the first to target a church in Burkina Faso, a nation where Muslims and Christians largely have coexisted. 

But in May, a Catholic church was attacked in the northern town of Dablo, where gunmen also killed a pastor and five churchgoers, some of whom were church elders.

Additionally, extremists in Dablo set fire to the church and a nearby cafe. They also attacked a local health center and burned a nurse’s car.

Also in May, four Catholics were killed during a procession with a statue of the Virgin Mary in the northern municipality of Zimtenga in the country’s Bam province.

Witnesses said that extremists killed civilians because of suspected ties to the government or for supporting the idea of forming self-defense groups, according to Human Rights Watch.

One villager told HRW about an extremist attack carried out in the village of Gasseliki that left 12 people dead in January.

“They kicked the door in, went room to room and found us hiding,” the villager was quoted as saying. “Then they opened fire in a hail of bullets killing three men.”

Another witness told HRW about an attack that killed nine men in Sikiré village.

“People are dominated by fear,” the witness said. “No man over 18 dares sleep in his house anymore for fear of being kidnapped or worse.”

Others told HRW that the extremists are damaging the livelihood of entire villages through the large-scale looting of livestock.

The Christian aid organization Open Doors U.K. reports that many pastors and their families have been kidnapped and remain in captivity while over 200 churches have closed in northern Burkina Faso to avoid more attacks on worship services.

“This is the biggest shock of our lives as Christians. Never in our wildest imagination did we think this would happen and that today we would be left at the mercy of other believers in safer areas,” Pastor Daniel Sawadogo told Open Doors. “We have left everything we labored for. Our children have been pushed out of school. Some of our men have been killed without provocation.”

In addition to the extremist attacks, witnessed told HRW about crimes committed by Burkina Faso security forces, including the execution of 116 men accused of supporting or harboring the armed jihadis.

HRW reports that about 100 armed gendarmes officers were dispatched to Arbinda in August.

“We are witnessing an unprecedented humanitarian emergency in Burkina Faso where an upsurge in armed attacks has caused massive internal displacement," Ursula Mueller, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator, said in a statement issued after a visit to Burkina Faso in March.

"Thousands of families, young children, men, and women are surviving in utterly difficult conditions, some in overcrowded tents, and without enough food, water or medical attention. It is critical that we step up the ongoing emergency assistance in Burkina Faso and increase efforts in the Sahel in general where growing insecurity directly generates a rapid deterioration in the humanitarian situation.”

A state of emergency has been declared in several regions in Burkina Faso.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

or Facebook: SamuelSmithCP

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