In Burkina Faso, a growing number of children are traumatized by war

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — When gunmen entered Safi’s village in northern Burkina Faso and started shooting, she hid in her home with her four children. The gunmen found them and let them live – under the guilt of surviving – after killing her husband and other family members.

Safi, whose surname has been withheld for security reasons, is among two million people displaced in the West African country by rising violence between Islamic extremists and security forces.

About 60% of those displaced are children. Many are traumatized, but mental health care is limited and children are often overlooked for treatment.

“People often think the children didn’t see anything, nothing happened to them, it’s fine,” said Rudy Lukamba, health coordinator for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Burkina Faso.

He is working on a program to help identify and treat traumatized children. It often depends on mothers to notice signals in children from the age of 3 or 4. The chances of a successful outcome after treatment are greater if the children have a parental figure in their lives, he said.

Mass killings of villagers have become common in northern Burkina Faso as fighters linked to Islamic State and al-Qaeda attack the army and volunteer forces. These forces can turn against villages accused of collaborating with the enemy. More than 20,000 people have been killed since fighting began a decade ago, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a U.S.-based nonprofit.

Mental health care in Burkina Faso is often only intended for the most serious cases. A UN study published in 2023 found that there were 103 mental health professionals in the country of more than 20 million people, including 11 psychiatrists.

Community-based mental health care provided by social workers is expanding, now employing hundreds of people and supported by a small team of UN psychologists. In addition, traditional medicine practitioners in Burkina Faso say families are increasingly turning to them for help with traumatized children.

But the need is enormous. According to the UN, studies by the UN and its partners show that 10 out of 11 people affected by the conflict show signs of trauma.

Without money and fearing another attack, Safi set out on foot with seven children, including her own, across the arid plains in search of safety. They settled in a community in Ouahigouya, the capital of Yatenga province, and sought help.

There, Safi learned how post-traumatic stress can affect children. They had nightmares and couldn’t sleep. During the day they did not play with other children. Through the ICRC, Safi was connected to a health worker who helped with home visits and art, and encouraged the children to draw and talk about their fears.

Traditional medicine practitioners also help traumatized children. One, Rasmane Rouamba, said he treats about five children a month, adapting the approach depending on the trauma suffered.

Children in Burkina Faso also no longer have access to education and basic health care in fighting-affected areas.

School closures are depriving nearly 850,000 children of access to education, the UN children’s agency said. The closure of hundreds of health facilities has left 3.6 million people without access to care, the report said.

The government of Burkina Faso is struggling to improve security.

The country’s military leader, Captain Ibrahim Traoré, seized power in 2022 amid government frustrations over the deadly attacks. He is expected to stay in office for another five years, delaying the junta’s promises of a democratic transition.

About half of Burkina Faso’s territory remains outside government control. Civil liberties have been rolled back and journalists have been expelled.

And the country has distanced itself from regional and Western countries that disagree with its approach, cutting military ties with former colonial ruler France and turning instead to Russia for security support.

Safi, adrift with her children, said she plans to stay in her new community for the time being. She has no money or anywhere else to go.

“There is perfect harmony in the community and they have become like family,” she said.

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