In Niger, living in fear of terrorists
"They have killed our husbands, the other men have fled, our storehouses have been burned down," said Hajiya Sibti Mouhamadou, who lives in the small village of Sara Koira in Niger's volatile Tillaberi region. "Today, it's the females who have to take on the role of both the men and the mothers ... and take care of the children and the old people," Mouhamadou says in the DW interview. "How should we manage to do all of this?"
Tillaberi is a vast arid area of 100,000 square kilometers (39,000 square miles) in Niger's southwest, where people primarily live from livestock herding and subsistence farming. The situation in Tillaberi, which forms part of the tri-border region shared by Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, has sharply deteriorated in the past few years.
"It's not easy to live in such a situation because as soon as you hear the sound of a motorcycle, panic breaks out in the village," Mouhamadou said, referring to the habit of terrorists and armed bandits to use motorbikes to raid villages like hers.
Destruction of essential infrastructure
In neighboring Anzourou, the mayor lists the effects of the attacks on his rural community. "Up to 22 schools with a total of 1,800 students are closed," Halidou Djibo told DW. Eight reception centers for the sick and three health centers in the Anzourou municipality have also been attacked several times by armed groups, he said. "They looted and stole the supplies for treatments."
The Tillaberi region has become one of the most dangerous in Niger, causing some 13,000 people a week to flee their homes. The last massacre of civilians in Anzourou was on August 21 in the village of Theim, according to AFP news agency, where gunmen arrived on foot and killed 19 worshipers in a mosque. The assailants issued an ultimatum for residents to leave, and nearly 2,000 fled several villages to take refuge in Sara Koira, authorities said.
Children increasingly targeted
An increasing number of children are being killed or recruited by armed groups in Tillaberi, Amnesty International said in a report published earlier this week. Amnesty blamed the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jama'at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM), for causing the "devastating impact on children".
During their research, Amnesty spoke to more than a dozen boys who had narrowly survived ISGS attacks on their villages. One boy, who witnessed the murder of his 12-year-old friend Wahab, told the researchers: "I think of Wahab and how he was killed. Sometimes I have nightmares of being chased by people on motorbikes or seeing Wahab pleading with the [attackers] again."
Sidikou Moussa, the National Coordinator of Epad, a Nigerien child's rights NGO, called the situation in Tillaberi "more than alarming" for children. "We know very well that the incessant attacks have deep repercussions on children's mental health and also on their well-being," Moussa told DW.
Terrorists paying for child combatants
Witnesses also told Amnesty that the armed groups were recruiting young boys aged 15 to 17 as recruits. Terrorist groups visit villages, paying bribes of cash and also "in kind" payments, explained Nigerien sociologist Sani Yahaya Janjouna. "The terrorists are taking advantage of children's weakness to hire and recruit them. This presents a real danger for the children. A child's place is in school, … in a family and not on a battlefield or in combat," he emphasized to DW.
Niger is the world's poorest country, according to the UN's 2020 Human Development Index. Tillaberi's extreme poverty makes youths and children vulnerable to recruitment by Islamic groups.
Weak security forces
In March, the authorities returned around 12,000 Tillaberi residents to their homes, deploying heavily armed soldiers to protect them. "As far as the supply of food and other goods is concerned, the state and its partners have not abandoned us, thank God," Mamoudou Sabo, one of those who has returned to the Anzourou commune, told DW. "But after we returned to our villages, we stopped working in the fields for security reasons because the security forces deployed in the region can't be in every field."
During a weekend visit to Tillaberi, Niger's President Mohamed Bazoum promised to increase the number of security forces in the region and "get to the root of the problem" by closing the door through which terrorists enter the region. However, in a recent briefing paper, International Crisis Group, a conflict prevention organization, called Niger's security forces "overstretched" and "under-resourced".
"The government’s best option will be to pursue a strategy that seeks to calm communal tensions, better protect villagers from surging banditry and once again test prospects for dialogue with militants," the Crisis Group said.