Sahel internal displacement tops 2 million as violence surges
On the evening of 31 December, as the hours ticked down to the New Year, 40-year-old Aguiratou Diallo was at home with her four children in their village near the town of Koumbri in northern Burkina Faso, when a group of armed men burst into the courtyard outside.
“They threatened to hurt us if we were still there when they returned the next day. Then they fired into the air to scare us,” said Aguiratou, whose husband was away at work at the time.
“I was so frightened. The whole family – including my grandmother, aunt, and my husband’s brothers and sisters – met up and left the village. We set off on foot without any belongings. There were about 40 of us, and it took us 20 hours to reach Ouahigouya.”
After rejoining her husband, the family were moved to a site hosting other families who had fled their homes, where UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and its partners provided them with shelter, blankets, mattresses and other essential items.
“Our biggest concern now is water, because the wells are nearly empty,” Aguiratou explained. “Our wish is for peace to return so that we can go home.”
“Our biggest concern now is water, because the wells are nearly empty."
Aguiratou and her family are among some 11,400 people – mostly women and children – who fled their homes during the first few weeks of January, following continuous attacks by armed groups on the town of Koumbri and its neighbouring villages.
This latest wave of displacement in Africa’s Sahel region – which includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali and Niger – has pushed the total number of people forced to flee within their own country in the region to beyond two million for the first time.
The countries that make up the Sahel are among the world’s least developed and are now the epicentre of the fastest-growing displacement crisis globally, driven by years of violent attacks by armed insurgent groups and criminal gangs.
More than one million of those uprooted are from Burkina Faso, where the numbers forced to flee to other parts of the country in search of safety nearly doubled in 2020 alone.
Another of those who fled the area around Koumbri in early January was 81-year-old Salamata, who together with her three sons and their families left the land they farm after armed men swept into their village, killing several inhabitants.
“One of the victims was the son of my neighbour, who I’ve watched growing up,” Salamata said. “During the attack we heard gunfire, bullets were flying everywhere and even falling in our courtyard. I was very scared for my children, who were still outside.”
"Bullets were flying everywhere and even falling in our courtyard."
“The next day, even though we didn’t want to leave our village, we left in order to save our lives,” she added.
Like most of the new arrivals in Ouahigouya and nearby Barga, Salamata and her family are being hosted by local residents, in her case a nephew who is currently sheltering 78 people.
Another Ouahigouya resident who moved there from Koumbri two decades ago is 72-year-old Micailou, who opened up his large courtyard and stores of rice to accommodate and feed nearly 400 of those who fled for several days until local partners found alternative shelter for them.
“When I lived in Koumbri I was a kind of local leader, so when they arrived, I didn’t hesitate to welcome them. As a human being, it’s a moral duty,” Micailou said.
“Unfortunately, due to the lack of shelter, they had to spend three nights sleeping on the ground,” he added. “My greatest wish is that understanding can be established between communities so that peace can return. Then everyone will be able to return home undisturbed.”