Fatima Amadou, woken in the middle night by gunshots, was shocked to see children among the attackers.
As they surrounded Solhan, a town in Burkina Faso’s Sahel region, with guns slung over their tiny frames, the children sang “Allahu Akbar” and chanted “Allahu Akbar.” The mother, 43 years old, said that some children couldn’t pronounce Arabic for God is great because they were too young.
“When I saw them, it occurred to me that the adults had trained these children to be assassins and they came to kill our children,” Amadou said to The Associated Press via phone from Sebba, where she currently resides.
Her family and she were among the fortunate ones to survive the June attack in which 160 people were killed. This was the most brutal attack since the peaceful West African nation was overthrown by militants affiliated with al-Qaida or the Islamic State five years ago. The recruitment of child soldiers increases with the increase in violence.
According to unpublished information by conflict and international experts, the AP has seen that at least five times more children were recruited by armed groups in Burkina Faso this year than in 2014.
Ouagadougou is home to at least 14 boys being held for their alleged association with militant arm groups. Some of them have been there since 2018, according to Idrissa Sako assistant to Burkina Faso’s public prosecutor at its high court.
Amadou claimed that she saw seven children among the Solhan attackers. They did not kill anyone, but she saw them helping to burn down houses.
Sandra Lattouf (UNICEF representative) said that “we are alarmed by children with armed group,”.
The impact of conflict on children, including their recruitment as soldiers and attacks on schools and children themselves, has become so alarming that Burkina Faso was included in the U.N. annual report on Children and Armed Conflict.
Aid groups claim they are seeing more children with jihadi fighters at roadside checks in the Sahel, which is an arid region that runs through Burkina Faso and stretches across Africa just south of the Sahara. The western Sahel has been a hub for jihadi violence in recent years.
The AP met with eight survivors during a recent visit to Dori in the region, where almost 1,200 people fled the attack on Solhan. Five of them said that they had witnessed or heard children participating in violence.
Hama Amadou, a resident who was hiding in his shop during fighting, said that they heard them say “we good children have come here to change Solhan in an easier way.” He claimed that he heard the children being directed by women, who said “kill him, murder him.”
Burkina Faso’s undertrained and inept army is trying to stop the violence that has claimed the lives of thousands and forced 1.3 million people from their homes since the jihadi attacks.
Experts in child recruitment believe that some children are drawn to armed groups by poverty. Sako, who is a public prosecutor, stated that some children wanted to pay money to enroll in school, but were promised $18 if someone was killed. Others were promised motorbikes and other gifts.
Civil society organizations accuse the army troops of contributing to this problem by abusing civilians who are suspected of being jihadis.
Maimouna Ba (head of operations for Women for the Dignity of the Sahel), a Dori-based advocacy organization, said that “there are more security operations… (so). there are more military abuses.” She said that it is difficult for children to wake up each morning and find their father dead.
These allegations were denied by the army, as well as accusations that it was slow to respond to the attack on Solhan. However, they refused to comment in detail.
Protests are erupting across the country, demanding that the government takes stronger action to address the deteriorating security. President Roch Marc Christian Kabore resigned as security and defense ministers and appoints himself minister of defense.
Burkina Faso has to now deal with the children who are accused of being associated with armed groups, amid a host of other problems.
Sako claims that none of the boys held in Ouagadougou have been charged with any crime. According to Sako, the government has not yet reached an agreement with United Nations to help them treat these children as victims and not perpetrators by moving them from prisons to centers where they can receive psychological care.
Sako stated, “It is a real concern to us to find a lasting solution for children.”
To stop further recruitment, it is necessary to address economic hardship and all the associated issues, including helping students who have dropped out of school to catch up.
“Neglecting now will only lead us to an even more difficult crisis and more instability in the months and decades ahead, giving these armed groups that heartbreaking advantage they so desperately seek,” stated Dr. Samantha Nutt who is the founder and president War Child Canada and War Child USA.
Many parents are struggling to provide for their children’s education and care for them.
Isma Heella, a Dori resident who is also the father of a 4-year old boy, stated that she was afraid that her child would be recruited by jihadis. “We fear for our children as well as for ourselves, parents, because we aren’t stronger than them.”