Hunger grips Burkina Faso due to increasing jihadi violence


OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso (AP) — Martine Roamba’s 10-month-old daughter weakly tugs at her mother’s breast searching for milk.

The malnourished baby has been struggling to feed since birth as her mother hasn’t had enough to eat to produce sufficient breastmilk since fleeing her village in northern Burkina Faso last year when jihadis started killing people.

Seated on a hospital bed with other severely malnourished children and their parents on the outskirts of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, 30-year-old Roamba tries to calm her crying daughter.

“It’s very worrying and we’re praying to God that the baby doesn’t deteriorate into an even worse situation,” she said.

Hunger is soaring across conflict-ridden Burkina Faso, a result of increasing violence linked to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group, which has killed thousands and displaced millions, preventing people from farming. Some 3.5 million people are food insecure, with nearly 630,000 expected to be on the brink of starvation, according to the latest food security report by the government and U.N. agencies. This is an 82% increase from last year of people facing emergency hunger.

“The nutrition situation in (the country) is deteriorating more and more, there are more and more people in need,” said Claudine Konate, a nutrition specialist for the U.N. Children’s Agency, UNICEF. The country has to prepare for a growing crisis, she said.

At the hospital in Ouagadougou, the number of severely malnourished children arriving has doubled from two years ago and there isn’t enough space or staff to care for them, said Clarisse Nikiema, head of nutrition at the hospital.

“Because they were displaced, they are deeply impoverished and can’t feed their families, so children become malnourished,” she said. Sometimes after recovering, families refuse to leave because they don’t want their children going hungry at home where there’s no food, she said.

In January, mutinous soldiers ousted Burkina Faso’s democratically elected president, and the ruling junta says that restoring security is their top priority. However, attacks have since increased with an 11% rise in incidents in February, according to the U.N. The violence is driving more people closer to starvation, say experts.

The situation is most dire in the northern Sahel region, where cities like Djibo have until recently been besieged by jihadi rebels for months, restricting the delivery of food aid. Other towns like Gorom Gorom, have almost no operating health centers. Only two out of 27 in the district are fully functioning, said Jean Paul Ouedraogo, representative for the Italian-based aid group Lay Volunteers International Association.

Jihadi rebels are also expanding and pushing south and west into Burkina Faso’s breadbasket, stealing crops and livestock and chasing people from their rural farms and into cities.

The decreasing supply and increase in demand is causing prices to spike. A bag of 100 kilograms of corn has nearly doubled since last year from $30 to $50, say locals. Aid organizations are bracing for more price hikes because of the war in Ukraine. Burkina Faso buys more than a third of its wheat from Russia, according to the U.N., and while the impact is not yet visible, humanitarians say it’s a concern.

“The crisis in Ukraine is also likely to impact soaring grain prices, making an already bad situation worse,” said Gregoire Brou, country director for Action Against Hunger in Burkina Faso. Aid for the country is already underfunded — last year’s humanitarian response plan received less than half of the requested $607 million, according to the UN — and now agencies say donors have indicated there could be a 70% cut to funding in order to support operations in Ukraine.

Meanwhile hunger is affecting virtually everyone in the country, even those trying to defend it. During a trip to the northern town of Ouahigouya, civilians who volunteered to fight alongside the army, told The Associated Press they’re battling jihadis on empty stomachs.

“The volunteers fight for the country, but they fight with hunger,” said one volunteer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The lack of farming and minimal pay as a volunteer — $8 a month — isn’t enough to subsist on, he said.

Malnourished people are arriving at health centers in Ouahigouya in severe condition and taking longer to recover, said Dr. Gerard Koudougou Kombassere, who works at a hospital in the town. Displaced people are the most affected and malnutrition rates among them are rising, he said. In a makeshift displacement camp in Ouahigouya where some 2,300 people have sought refuge, residents told AP they have received food assistance only once in the past 10 months.

At one of the shelters, Salamata Nacanabo said her family used to eat five times a day when they lived in their village, but now they eat just once. Mimicking the sound of gunshots, the 31-year-old recounts the day jihadis stormed her village killing eight people, seizing everything she owned and forcing her family to flee.

“They stole everything, cattle, food, and they took my goats,” she said. “Now it’s very hard to take care of the children.”