Attackers ransacked the village of Solhan, leaving behind ruined storefronts.

How children were used in a 48-hour deadly rampage for gold

Updated 5:40 AM ET, Wed December 22, 2021

(CNN)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.
In this file photo taken in February 2020, miners work at a gold mine in Bouda, Burkina Faso. A growing number of small-scale gold miners are out of work in Burkina Faso as jihadists try to seize control of the country's most lucrative industry.
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 satelite view of the site of the attack on Solhan in Burkina Faso.
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.