Attacks by armed groups on civilians are increasing in the West African country. A survivor of deadly violence in the town of Solhan gives a harrowing account of the bloodshed.
Lying concealed atop his bus while watching armed men murder people below, the only thought that brought Abdoulaye Diallo some comfort was the hope that if he died on a Friday, a holy day in Islam, he would go to heaven.
“I knew I’d be killed…[but] if I died on a Friday my paradise was guaranteed,” Diallo tells Al Jazeera, sitting in Dori, Burkina Faso, a town in the country’s Sahel region to which he fled. “So, I recited some Quranic verses while on top of the bus awaiting my death.”
The 28-year-old bus driver’s assistant was spending that June night in Solhan, a regular stop along his weekly transport route, when the attackers burst into the car park where he was sleeping and began executing people.
They then hijacked the bus he was on and drove it through the town while he lay hidden on top, before setting it alight. Diallo narrowly escaped, with the gunmen firing after him as he fled.
For the last five years, violence linked to al-Qaeda and ISIL (ISIS) has killed thousands and displaced more than 1.4 million people in the once-peaceful West African country.
Despite a window of calm surrounding the November 2020 presidential elections, due to a temporary ceasefire agreement between the government and some armed groups, attacks have resumed and are increasing, particularly against civilians.
Civilian deaths spiked by more than 300 percent from May to August compared with January to April – from 80 deaths to 335 – according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), with June and August being the deadliest months.
The attack on Solhan, a mining town in Yagha province, was one of the worst in the nation since the fighting began. Locals say at least 160 people were massacred during the early hours of June 4. Gunmen, including women and children who were fighting alongside them, entered the mining site screaming “Allahu Akbar” (Arabic for God is great), before advancing into the town shooting everyone in sight.
In July, survivors told Al Jazeera that dead bodies were still being found in the mine shafts where people had sheltered and that the number killed was likely much higher than what has been documented.
While Solhan had been attacked by armed men before, residents say civilians were never harmed in the past. The police station was hit twice at the end of 2019, killing one officer, and last October, attackers burned down a school and warned teachers and students not to attend.
It is unclear why so many civilians were targeted in June’s attack. Some conflict analysts attribute it to a combination of factors. According to Heni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at ACLED, these may include: continuing efforts to control and cut off the population in Yagha – some nearby towns have been blockaded for months; revenge on villages that support the country’s volunteer fighters – armed civilians who fight alongside the army; and a lack of cohesion within the al-Qaeda-linked group known as Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM).
While JNIM publicly denied responsibility for the attack, it is believed to have been committed by a group affiliated with them.
“The events in Solhan underscore the importance of how local contexts and circumstances shape militant units that operate with great autonomy and raise questions about decision-making and loyalties in violent, competitive, and fast-paced environments, such as the context in which the Solhan massacre took place,” says Nsaibia. “The fracturing of these groups could have negative consequences on the conflict, such as even more targeting of civilians.”
Witnessing a bloodbath
When Diallo first heard the gunshots on that June night, he thought it was the volunteer fighters arresting a thief. But as the sound intensified and he saw people fleeing and heard their screams, he realised it was something much worse.
Glancing at his phone, the time read 2:10am when Diallo saw a wounded man stagger into the station clutching his bleeding stomach, he says. Trailing closely behind him was a group of armed men on bikes.
“They entered the bus station with their motorbikes and spread out…I could hear them say, ‘Boureima turn the bike off, Harouna turn the bike off,’” he recounts.
The men yanked two people from under a car where they were sleeping, made them kneel on the ground and hand over the keys, Diallo says. One of the attackers tried unsuccessfully to drive their vehicle, but rammed it into a wall, as another radioed a commander named Rahim, asking for instructions on how to proceed with the men, he adds.
“The jihadists first asked their commander what they should do with the two young men…The response came back through the walkie talkie: ‘Kill them all, don’t spare anyone.’”
The men were instantly shot and killed.