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Jihadists in Burkina Faso: Mariam Ouedraogo, journalist haunted by the rapes

Jihadists in Burkina Faso: Mariam Ouedraogo, journalist haunted by the rapes
Mariam Ouedraogo, investigative journalist from Burkina Faso, poses for a portrait   -  
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WIKUS DE WET/AFP or licensors

Burkina Faso

The rapes are "sometimes collective or even public, in front of a spouse, in front of the children: these stories leave insurmountable traces", says Burkinabe journalist Mariam Ouedraogo, who has never finished recounting the jihadist violence that has struck her country since 2015.

Her gaze vacillates between concern and overwhelm, contrasting with the energy of her rebellious curls and the brightness of her yellow jumpsuit. This 42-year-old woman, the first African woman to win last year's Bayeux Prize for war correspondents, goes to the front every night and every day. Endlessly.

"It's my cross," says this Muslim employee of the state-owned daily Sidwaya, who was recently invited to a conference on investigative journalism in Johannesburg.

Burkina Faso is caught up in a spiral of violence perpetrated by jihadist groups affiliated to the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which have already struck neighboring Mali and Niger. More than 17,000 people have been killed and more than two million internally displaced.

For four years now, Mariam Ouedraogo has been writing about "sexual violence linked to terrorism, mainly rape", which is difficult to tackle "because in Burkina Faso, everything to do with sexuality is taboo". Rape even more so.

Victims also don't like to confide in us "because it touches on their intimacy and their dignity".

Mariam, mother of a seven-year-old girl, has forged strong ties with these women, who have placed their trust in her. As well as recounting the violence, she keeps in touch to listen and tell them what happens next, the repudiation by their families, the pregnancies resulting from this violence, the birth of these traumatized children.

Mariam was so overwhelmed by these "atrocities" that she was unable to maintain the necessary, salutary distance. For a long time now, she has been struggling with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, insomnia, anxiety and depression.

"Every time they told me about their rapes, it was as if I was being raped in their place," she says, her eyes clouded with emotion. "Maybe I didn't know how to put distance between what they were telling me and me being there, just to reap".

Today, "whenever they're in distress, they call me. Unfortunately, I see myself as powerless", which gives rise to "an internal conflict that persecutes me to this day".

- Every night at the front -

Mariam Ouedraogo was already interested in life's wounded and vulnerable. The legacy of an exceptional maternal grandmother, a "lady of heart" who fed and welcomed all the "social cases" in her neighborhood.

"Our courtyard was like a refuge for all those in difficulty, marginalized people, widows and orphans", she recalls. If she went out and left a pair of shoes, when she came back the grandmother had given them away. "She felt that me and my sisters had enough, that we didn't need them".

When the jihadist attacks began, the journalist first became interested in the women involved in self-defense groups. Then she realized that "in the killings, women weren't automatically killed. I wondered why.

She went out into the field. "And that's when I understood: we traumatize them differently. I knew they were being raped, kidnapped and held captive.

In her small way, her grandmother restored social justice. Mariam follows in her footsteps through journalism.

"I'm sensitive to human suffering, observant of those little things around me that to others may seem trivial. I capture everything that is pain", says this sensitive woman.

She won't stop. "I've turned the corner and I'm going to continue on the subject of rape. These women need me.

Even if it means losing sleep forever. "Every night, I'm at a crossroads, between the army and the terrorists. I direct the people, the population, 'Run, they're coming, they're here'. Every morning I wake up exhausted", she confides.

From the capital Ouagadougou, where there have already been attacks, she travels a hundred kilometers to meet displaced women.

"Zero risk doesn't exist. If they're everywhere, no one is safe," she says with a touch of fatalism. "We're going with fear in our stomachs, but we're going anyway."

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