The last time Polenli Combary spoke to her son on the phone she prayed for God to bless him. Shortly after, she called back but the line was dead.
Her 34-year-old son was returning a truck used to move the family’s belongings from their village in eastern Burkina Faso after jihadis forced everyone to leave. He disappeared in March.
“We will keep searching … I’m just praying to God to have him back,” said Combary, 53, sitting despondently in the eastern city of Fada N’Gourma where she now lives.
Islamic extremist violence is ravaging Burkina Faso, killing thousands and displacing more than 1 million people.
And people are going missing. Reports of missing relatives quadrupled from 104 to 407 between 2019 and 2020, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which defines a missing person as someone whose whereabouts cannot be accounted for and requires state intervention.
“With the conflict, you have more sudden movements of people, you have more incidents which can lead to separation and disappearance,” said Marina Fakhouri, head of protection with the ICRC in Burkina Faso. “Certainly we are concerned also by the number of families who are coming to us directly to signal that they have a missing relative and need support.”
People have previously gone missing in the West African nation due to migration, floods or shocks from climate change, but the magnitude has increased because of the violence, she said.
Tracing people during a conflict and in a context of mass displacement is challenging, can cause tensions within families and communities and psychological and physical distress. One month after her son disappeared, Combary’s husband died of a heart attack due to the shock, she said.
While some families blame the jihadis for the disappearances of their loved ones, many others point to the security forces as the main perpetrators. During a trip to Fada N’Gourma in October and speaking to people in the Sahel province by phone, three families, including Combary’s, told The Associated Press they suspect the army is responsible for their missing relatives.
The military has been accused by rights groups of extrajudicial killings and targeting people deemed to be associated with the jihadis. About 70% of families reporting people missing allege it is linked to the security forces, said Daouda Diallo, executive secretary for the Collective Against Impunity and Stigmatization of Communities, a civil society group.
There’s been a reduction of reported cases affiliated with the military since the end of last year, which Diallo attributes to a report by Human Rights Watch that accused the army of being involved in mass killings, said Diallo. But now the abuses are being committed by volunteer fighters, civilians armed by the state, he said.
“It is sad to see that the violence has been subcontracted to armed civilians or militia in the field,” Diallo said.
The ministry of defense did not respond to requests for comment.
Burkina Faso’s increasing violence fuels impunity among the security forces and the abductions and killings highlight the absence of the rule of law, conflict analysts say.
“A significant proportion of the violence is attributed either to jihadist groups or ‘unidentified armed men’ making it easy to absolve certain parties of responsibility. It’s easy to kill people or make them disappear, but much more difficult to protect them,” said Heni Nsaibia, senior researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Families searching for relatives they believe were taken by state agents say they don’t know where to turn. Hamadou Diallo’s nephew was allegedly arrested by the army outside Dori town in the Sahel province in 2019, he said. Unaware of any organization that could help other than the military, Diallo stopped searching.
“Nobody had the courage to approach (the army),” he said. “After one or two weeks, if you don’t see a family member, that means (they’re dead).”
Rights groups say the government is obligated to investigate all cases of disappearance, hold people responsible and use the judiciary and the national human rights commission, said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director for Human Rights Watch.
“Both institutions need to redouble their efforts on behalf of families whose loved ones went missing at the hands of state security forces or armed Islamists. They have a right to the truth and to justice,” she said.
But while families with missing relatives search for answers, they live in limbo.
Fidele Ouali hasn’t seen his 33-year-old brother since he disappeared a year and a half ago, he said. A farmer and father of five, Ouali said he was close to his brother, but as time passes, he’s finding it harder to remember him.
“All my memories are wiped out,” said Ouali. Clutching his brother’s birth certificate which he carries everywhere, Ouali said he is torn between giving up completely and hanging onto the hope that one day he might see his brother again.