The men were shot as they slept outside, having spent their days underground, choking in the Sahel dust, digging and panning for gold.
They were killed by children – some apparently as young as 12 – and men who had arrived on dozens of motorbikes and were egged on in their murderous spree by women who knew the village well, according to witnesses. The local militia had left. The army came to the rescue for a matter of hours in the morning but then left before dusk, letting the attackers return the following night to burn the village down and most likely steal what gold it had.
In the end, somewhere between 170 and 200 people died, according to estimates by a local police source and other officials, and it still remains unclear who the killers were.
The massacre in Solhan, northern Burkina Faso, took place over two nights of extraordinary brutality in June 2021. The killings soon faded from international headlines, absorbed into the rhythms of persistent violence in the Sahel region, an arid stretch of land sandwiched by the Sahara Desert and the African savannah, and wracked by the climate emergency.
In the lawless and remote communities of the Sahel, jihadists increasingly hold sway. Yet one likely culprit in this incident, al Qaeda’s local affiliate JNIM, condemned the attack’s brutality. And the other main suspect, ISIS, chose to blame it on al Qaeda, according to an ISIS-affiliated newspaper.
Dozens of interviews by CNN with survivors, local witnesses and Burkina Faso officials paint the most complete and disturbing narrative yet of a rampage perpetrated over 48 hours, partially by children, that the US-backed and trained Burkina Faso military was powerless to stop.
Yet few officials or witnesses agree on a coherent and consistent motive for the attack. Were the child attackers sent for Solhan’s gold, as currency for their Islamist masters? Was it a punishment killing ordered by jihadists against villagers loyal to the government?
The story of Solhan is a notable mark in the patina of brutality spreading across the Sahel. The intervention – and now ongoing drawdown – of the French military, the arrival of European Union forces, and the Pentagon’s sustained support mean billions have been spent in attempts to bolster the local security forces. Yet violence has spiraled instead, particularly in Burkina Faso over recent years.
The crisis in some of sub-Saharan Africa’s poorest states presents an imminent threat to Europe’s security, and by extension the United States, analysts say, in providing a secure and spacious breeding ground for terror networks. US officials have described the “wildfire of terrorism” in the Sahel, with al Qaeda and ISIS “on the march” in West Africa, aiming to “carve out a new caliphate.”
Illicit gold has emerged as a key source of funding for jihadist groups, who have been seizing so-called “informal mines” – small-scale mining sites which rely largely on physical labor and basic technology to extract precious metals and minerals – in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016, according to a Crisis Group report from 2019.
Bachir Ismael Ouédraogo, Burkina Faso’s minister of energy and mines, told CNN the country lost 20 tons of gold through informal mining and exports every year, worth roughly $1 billion on the open market.
Ouédraogo describes it as a “war economy,” a system that uses well-coordinated routes across the African continent. “The gold you end up buying is financing terrorism, and affecting our families here,” he added.
The first night: Massacre
Trapped in the arid plains around 400 kilometers (250 miles) northeast of the capital Ouagadougou, Solhan’s gold is the village’s only asset, and its curse.
Satellite images of the village show the damage that informal mining has done to the terracotta soil – the charred grey tailings and spoil from the intense activity of men who spend so many hours digging underground that they must sleep outdoors to recover.
A local government-backed militia called the VDP (a French acronym meaning Volunteers for the Defense of the Country) provides some security. Yet on the night of June 4, Solhan was left mostly defenseless.
More than 100 jihadists, on dozens of tricycles and motorbikes, had been spotted 20 kilometers (12 miles) from Solhan that afternoon, according to Boureima Ly, the emir of the local region of Yagha.
The army was warned of a possible attack, but it was unclear if it would target Solhan or nearby Sebba – according to Aly Bokoum, an activist with the Sahel Regional Youth Council in Burkina Faso – so the local unit chose to stay in Sebba, where it is based. The VDP in Solhan also contacted the army about the threat but were told to leave the village, according to Bokoum.
CNN has made multiple attempts to contact Burkina Faso’s army for comment.
Gold appeared to set the attackers’ priorities. Mines at Mousiga, a tiny settlement to Solhan’s east, were hit first, according to a mining official and a miner who were present. Many of the survivors, witnesses and officials requested anonymity for their safety.
“Their faces were hidden with scarves,” the miner said of the assailants. “There were many of them on bikes and they started shooting. I started running for my life – for 30 kilometers, all night, to safety.” This miner said he did not see children among this group and two other officials denied the involvement of children at the Mousiga mines.
The distant gunfire from Mousiga was misinterpreted by the Solhan miners, who “thought it was the army coming” on a routine patrol and so “stayed next to their wells,” said the mining official. The attackers then hit a VDP base on the road into the village, before moving on to their main target.
On entering Solhan, the convoy of children, women and likely some men split. One group turned left towards the mines. Another drove calmly into the center of the village.
The first shots in Solhan, heard by witnesses at 2:08 a.m., were at the mines, the police source said. “The gold-diggers were first … ambushed … killed at random,” he said, while describing the typical night-time scene. “Most of the [miners] sleep outside, on site. They can’t sleep indoors, and they don’t go home either. Usually only a few of them get into the well late at night, and most come out because of the heat.”
One miner said some victims were shot dead as they slept outside and others were slaughtered as they worked, trapped underground. “All [the attackers] found outside were people sleeping,” he said. “That’s what made it possible for them to massacre them like that.”
Another miner said: “People started coming out of the pits and running … running for our lives.” He added that others hid inside the 30-foot-deep wells.
The mining official described how a large gun was positioned beneath a nearby tree for use in the attack. “Many ran away, but when you run, you’re going to be seen and they shoot,” he said, adding that some miners survived by hiding in the pits until 8 a.m. “The first person who went down to the site [the following day] called me, and said the bodies were lying like fish,” the official said.
Several witnesses and officials told CNN that the attackers had in-depth knowledge of Solhan’s layout. “These are people who take the time to study their target,” confirmed the police source, who said witnesses mentioned distinctly hearing women’s voices among the attackers. “They indicated to ‘go to into this guy’s house, do this and that,’ and told children to ‘go here and there,’ that they couldn’t let one person leave,” the source said.
Local activist Abdou Hoeffi, from the human rights group Burkina Faso Movement for Human and People’s Rights (MBDHP), said the women played a cheerleading role with the child assailants, with shouts of: “You are a good shooter! You go!”
One witness, who said his parents were killed in the attack, told CNN in Solhan: “They came with women and little children holding guns. Francois, a shopkeeper, he was taken away, my friend. If it was a man, they killed him – a boy, they kidnapped him. A little one like that,” he said, gesturing the embrace of an infant in his arms, “who was breastfeeding [was taken away]. His mother lost her mind.”
One Solhan woman, her bright blue dress glistening as she sifted grains through a sieve, described surviving the night: “They destroyed everything … I fled into my house with my child on my back … I couldn’t sleep all night. We saw the light from the bullets all over the place … It was only God who saved us, otherwise they were going to exterminate us all.”
Another witness said he and his wife were in bed with their 5-day-old baby when they heard the gunfire. “Three terrorists passed by my house, in front of me, talking. They did not stop. I could see the bullets raining down everywhere in the night.” The witness, a former security guard for the local cellphone antenna, said the attackers disabled the phone mast that night and removed its battery, cutting the village off from the outside world and a chance of help.
The attackers left at dawn, and the same witness said that the villagers started to venture outside again by 5 a.m. “I couldn’t count the number of corpses that were on the side of the road,” he recalled. “Everywhere you go, there are bodies lying around.”
The mine was also an apocalyptic scene. “We found that everyone died at the well. I made up to eight trips with a motorcycle cab to carry corpses,” said another survivor.” The mining official added that “everyone was loaded on and off the motorbikes like bags of grain.”
Then the army finally arrived. One miner told CNN the attackers depended on the military’s slow reaction when launching their assault. “This is Burkina Faso. There is no fast response,” the miner said. “If they knew that in 30 or 40 minutes the army would come, they wouldn’t [attack]. But they took all their time.”
When the military did arrive, there was little to do but bury the dead, he said. “They dug a big hole. There was no other solution.”
The ex-phone antenna guard said the security forces asked villagers “to go back home and lock the door, and to not hide any terrorists.”
Two officials said the militants’ convoy did not really leave at first light but instead relocated to a hideout in the brush, and waited. The mining official specified a remote border area where he believed they had hidden. The police source said it was not clear if they met leaders there for further instructions, or just waited for the cover of night.
Some of the villagers who remained in Solhan tried to flee, said the police source. “They didn’t know if it was over or not,” he said. The hospital in the nearest city, Dori, was “overwhelmed,” he said. But it was unclear if the attackers were finished with Solhan. At dusk, the answer came.
The second night: Destruction
“I heard the sound of their motorcycles and said, ‘Ah, they are [here] again,’” one witness said. “I went back to my yard, turned off the lights in my house, took my mat, took my blanket.” He said he left for another village – traveling on foot with a group of Solhan’s children, elderly residents and pregnant women.
But the convoy’s focus was different this time: They wanted to eradicate or loot all that remained. “They started to burn. They entered the houses,” said one survivor. “At the stores, they took clothes, drinks, money, put them in their vehicles.”
“They came back, they found four motorcycles at our place,” another survivor said. “They burned everything. They burned all our houses, until even the sheet metal was gone. They took rice, sugar, oil and boxes of other things.”
Showing a cameraman around what remained of his home, the survivor gestured to the devastation – the walls black with soot, apart from a patch where the TV was fixed before it too was looted. “The grenade went through the wall and went to the other side,” he said, pointing at a missing patch of plaster. “The whole roof is gone.”
The mining official said 80 sheep were also slaughtered in the violence.
Young men who survived the onslaught sought medication for the psychological trauma in nearby Dori, he added. “They were given pills or injections, because they say they couldn’t close their eyes, because they could still see the dead bodies.”
Video filmed in July shows the charred village clinic – the hospital beds and consultation room beyond use. Shops and homes were incinerated, and rows of buildings left collapsed or with only their metal gates remaining. Motorcycles were torched. Even the mining machinery used to break rocks was half-smashed, yet in the video some of it still hummed around the mines that remained functioning.
Shell casings still lay on the ground. The scale of destruction – fueled, it seemed, by something more nihilistic than just looting – surprised some officials.
Since June, officials, experts and survivors have been seeking to understand more about the massacre.
The government, facing protests in Dori over its inaction and security failings, blamed jihadists.
Government spokesperson Ousseni Tamboura told Radio France Internationale that two suspects had been detained before the attack and the arrests had led officials to link it to a little-known group called Mujahed al Qaeda, which is connected to the al Qaeda affiliate JNIM. Tamboura said gold was also a motivating factor. In the immediate aftermath, the government fired some security personnel and declared three days of national mourning.
Tamboura told CNN in November the government believes al Qaeda affiliate JNIM was behind the massacre. He put the death toll at 132, which includes attackers killed in the incident, and fatalities from a neighboring attack.
Tamboura declined to comment on the army’s absence in Solhan that night, and said that the Burkina Faso military followed all protocols set between them and the US as a condition for aid. The spokesman added that the jihadi groups were fueled by hunger to control resources, not by ideology.
A French military intelligence official, who didn’t want to be named discussing sensitive information, agreed that jihadists were likely responsible, saying the massacre was likely committed by a group “in the process of being formed,” linked to JNIM. The official said attacks against the general population, as indiscriminate as those on Solhan, were more the hallmark of ISIS, however.
Display of violence
The display of violence has once again highlighted the rapid deterioration of social structures and security in the Sahel region.
A US intelligence official said: “There is absolutely a continued need for Western involvement and engagement to address the expansion of the al Qaeda- and ISIS-based groups in the area and not give them complete freedom of movement – as well as to build [the] capability [and] capacity of African partners.”
The US official added that the crisis seemed to be fueled by local partnerships between jihadists and not an influx of ISIS fighters from the collapse of the former ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria. They said that they have not noticed a broad trend of ISIS fighters moving from the Middle East to the Sahel area, with the exception of one or two persons of interest.
The official said the main concern was how ISIS affiliates across Africa were able to share tactics and build each other’s capabilities.
“Whether it’s physical facilitation capabilities from a group like ISIS Somalia with more skilled fighters [or] better media coordination from other groups, and being able to rapidly disseminate those capabilities more widely … it is hugely concerning,” they explained. “You could take a group that is probably not very effective and make them very effective quickly, if they’re able to leverage some of that skill set.”
In Burkina Faso and its Sahel neighbors Mali and Niger, armed Islamist groups have killed more than 800 civilians in attacks during 2021 alone, according to Human Rights Watch.
Three days of mourning was declared in Burkina Faso after an August attack in the village of Gorgadji, about 50 kilometers west of Dori, where militants killed 80 people, reported Agence France-Presse.
Fourteen soldiers were reportedly ambushed and killed in October near Yirgou, also in the north, the site of a similar attack that killed 15 police in June, according to Reuters.
Gunmen killed dozens of people in another massacre in Yirgou in 2019, according to Amnesty International.
This rise in violence has occurred despite the US’s enduring, low-profile military mission in Burkina Faso, which pumped in tens of millions of dollars in aid during 2018-19.
Dozens of advisers are reported to mentor elements of the country’s military, while a US embassy factsheet said the US has trained and equipped 3,000 soldiers and gendarmes.
Yet significant swathes of Burkina Faso’s volatile north remain outside of the government’s control. Long-running accusations of abuses by the military have also complicated its relationship with its key military backers, specifically France and the US.
Human rights organizations also face difficulties in Burkina Faso. The government suspended the operations of the Norwegian Refugee Council in September after the humanitarian group noted the country’s speed at registering displaced people.
For the police source, however, the massacre at Solhan was particularly methodical and unparalleled in its brutality. “These are people who take the time to study their target,” he said. “It is painful to see a woman instructing a child to kill such and such. Painful.”
And for the survivors, the initial absence of the army, as well as its departure as night fell, are indications of the dark place they live in.
“If the [army] are not with the people, how is that possible?,” one survivor said. “As soon as the army left, [the attackers] came again. This is a strange country. It’s a strange country.”