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Child soldiers carried out attack that killed at least 138 people in Burkina Faso, officials say

Damaged buildings and huts at the site of an attack in Solhan, Burkina Faso, on June 7. (Burkina Faso Prime Minister's Press Service/Reuters)
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The deadliest massacre that Burkina Faso has suffered since extremists invaded the West African nation was perpetrated by mostly children, officials said, injecting fresh tragedy into the six-year conflict that has killed thousands.

A group of young boys helped carry out the early June attack that claimed at least 138 lives in the northeastern village of Solhan, government spokesman Ousseni Tamboura said.

“The attackers were mostly children between the ages of 12 and 14,” he told reporters this week in the capital, Ouagadougou.

The announcement comes as 10 percent of Burkina Faso’s schools have shuttered due to rising insecurity — a trend that researchers say makes children more vulnerable to abuse, human trafficking and combat recruitment.

Classrooms closed nationwide from March to June of last year because of the pandemic, and many students never returned. More than 300,000 children in the country have now lost access to education, according to the United Nations.

In 2020 alone, an estimated 3,270 children were recruited into armed groups in central and West Africa, the United Nations found. That accounts for more than a third of the world’s documented child soldiers.

“We are alarmed by the presence of children within armed groups,” Sandra Lattouf, Unicef’s Burkina Faso representative, said in a statement Thursday. “While living among armed actors, children experience unconscionable forms of violence including physical and sexual violence or high level of traumatic experiences.”

Children have long been swept into the developing world’s wars. Many are kidnapped, plied with drugs and brainwashed, researchers say. Escapees describe the experience as traumatizing.

Children forced to join Boko Haram in northeast Nigeria, for instance, said their abductors threatened to kill anyone who refused to participate in attacks. The extremist group is notorious for strapping bombs onto young girls, then sending them into crowds.

The government did not offer further details about the children involved in Burkina Faso’s conflict. It was unclear which group staged the attack in a region with multiple insurgencies.

“Every now and then, one stumbles across photographs of fighters who clearly look underage,” said Héni Nsaibia, a senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), “and testimonies from hostages have also reported the young age of the fighters in the groups holding them, but generally the fighters are in their upper teens.”

Word that boys were behind the Solhan massacre sent shock waves through the nation of roughly 20 million, which is struggling to shake off groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

“Soldiers on patrol with tricycles — it’s deplorable,” one commenter wrote under a live stream of Tamboura’s news conference.

Violence is routine as fighters dominate communities across the countryside: 5,876 people have died in the fighting since 2015, according to ACLED.

Children as young as 7 are kidnapped to become soldiers, said a Burkinabe military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

“We’ve been seeing them more and more,” he said. “They start fighting around the age of 12.”

Self-defense militias have sprung up in response to the extremist threat. The resource-strapped military offers only shaky protection, even with backing from French and regional forces. The United States supplies mostly training, intelligence and logistical support to troops countering extremists in West Africa.

The government tapped some of those volunteer militiamen to bolster the army, but analysts say that has spurred gruesome acts of retaliation. Families are killed. Entire villages are torched.

More than 1.2 million people have lost their homes since the violence started, the United Nations reported, and 61 percent of them are children.

Wilkins reported from Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso.

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