(CNN)When Laurent Dabiré was appointed as a bishop in northern Burkina Faso in 2013, Dori was a very different place.
8 million children have been forced out of school by growing violence in west Africa
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.