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8 million children have been forced out of school by growing violence in west Africa

When Laurent Dabiré was appointed as a bishop in northern Burkina Faso in 2013, Dori was a very different place.

Back then, he told CNN, people of different religions and ethnicities treated each other with mutual respect in the tri-border community near Niger and Mali.

In the years since, however, Dabiré has witnessed how this once stable part of the Sahel region slipped into a spasm of violent anarchy and terror, his own diocese becoming both a refuge and a target.

Every week Dabiré comforts terrified victims streaming into Dori’s makeshift camps. They have come in their tens of thousands — victims of relentless attacks by Islamic militants and other armed groups. He says many flee with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

“Most of them have lost family members, we’re talking about widows and orphans. It’s a very difficult period we’re living in. It is a serious humanitarian crisis. It is hard to house these people, to feed them, to find schools for the children,” says Dabiré.

A new UNICEF report released on Tuesday quantifies the alarming human cost of the escalating violence. More than 8 million school-aged children in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have been forced from school. Nearly 1 million people are now displaced, with more than half of those coming from Burkina Faso.

“When you go to school you see that there is a possibility of a different way — you hope that you can be someone, but now these children do not have normal lives” Anne Vincent, UNICEF’s representative in Burkina Faso, told CNN.

The speed and scale of Burkina Faso’s crisis has shocked observers. In recent years, extremist violence has wracked Libya, Mali and Northern Nigeria — but Burkina Faso along with its neighbor Niger have remained largely immune. Once viewed as a buffer of stability, that is quickly changing.

“The security incidents have become worse and worse. You can now say that a third of the country has major security issues. This is a big change. Just three years ago there was hope here on most fronts. The country has moved backwards by 10 to 15 years and it is terrible to witness that,” Vincent said.

Officials and security analysts view the violence, particularly in Burkina Faso, as a serious regional threat. The fear is that militant groups like the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and Ansaroul Islam could use the country as a bridge into neighboring coastal West Africa. If Burkina Faso loses the fight, they say, the whole region could be lost.

“It is critical that the current insecurity in Burkina Faso is dealt with, because it could spill over to Benin, Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. We have already seen armed groups trying to anchor in those border regions,” William Assanvo, a security analyst based in Abidjan with the Institute for Security Studies, told CNN.

At a congressional hearing late last year, US State Department officials highlighted the risk to the entire region and as an extension, American economic interests.

“One thing we’re sure is that the situation won’t get better if the United States looks the other way. Left unaddressed, extremist violence in the region will likely spread elsewhere, affecting security and well-being of US economic partners and allies. That’s why our efforts are vital,” Deputy Assistant Administrator Cheryl Anderson told members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

Just a few years ago, Burkina Faso and Niger were surrounded by what the US military saw as a growing ring of instability following the fall of Libya and the 2012 uprising in Mali. Given their relative stability, both Burkina Faso and Niger quickly became the chosen partners for US operations based in region, including the construction of a $100-million drone base in Agadez, Niger.

What their international allies, like the US and France, didn’t count on was domestic political upheaval in Burkina Faso. The ouster of autocratic President Blaise Compaoré in 2014 helped make Burkina Faso fertile ground for extremist groups.

For decades, Compaoré cemented his ruthless grip with a security apparatus routinely accused of atrocities against political opponents, but was also widely accused of negotiating with terrorists to prevent attacks inside Burkinabe borders.

Just two years after Compaoré’s removal, the country suffered its first major terror attack in January 2016, when gunmen targeted a hotel and a cafe popular with foreigners, killing 29. Analysts say the state’s territorial presence has been shrinking ever since, replaced by militant groups eager to take advantage of the vacuum.

Addressing journalists in November last year, African Union Commissioner for Peace and Stability Smail Chergui called the regional violence the most difficult and challenging situation on the continent.

“It’s not anymore in north Mali only. It is going down to Burkina Faso, and countries like Ghana, Togo, Benin are all on alert. So, we have to see what can be done to stop the expansion, but also how can we address (it) in a comprehensive way — it’s not only security and defense, it is also development. I think together with other partners we have to deal with this global threat because, I mean, Sahel is not far from any country in the world.”

Assanvo agrees, noting that there has been an over-emphasis on a military solution.

“The US has had a presence for more than a decade and the French has had a presence for much longer, but the situation has not gotten better year after year,” referring to the long-running French Operation Barkhane, reinforced recently with an additional 220 French troops.

He says that the root causes of the conflict need to be tackled, a much more complex undertaking than a military response.

A rapidly increasing population and the ravages of the climate crisis have also increased the level of a long standing conflict between agrarian and pastoralist groups in Burkina Faso and the wider Sahel — a conflict that has been exploited by militant groups.

“If things begin to calm down between these different ethnic groups, then jihadis will execute a civilian who is farming or bringing in cows to the market place to kick off the cycle of violence and reprisals again,” said Corinne Dufka, the West African Director of Human Rights Watch — a group that has painstakingly recorded attacks in the Sahel through witness accounts.

Stopping that cycle will be difficult, but there is a history of peace building and tolerance in Burkina Faso that leads some to be more optimistic.

Dabiré, the bishop in Dori, leads an interfaith group trying to repair divisions in the north. He says the challenges faced by different communities are best met together, but radicalization has eroded much of the trust.

He says the first goal, though, should be to get children back into school.

“If they’re not going to school in 10 years’ time we’ll see how an entire generation was sacrificed because they weren’t able to learn. It won’t be just them who suffers. It will be everyone,” Dabiré said.

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