CENTRE-NORD, Burkina Faso — Over an hour’s drive through the bush from the nearest dirt road, a lunar landscape of deep mine shafts lies between two hills. Shot through the middle is a strip of tents and shacks selling coffee, candy and cigarettes. Rock breaking machines drone and from the plumes of dirt they throw out, young men and boys emerge like ghosts, tip to toe in dust.
Trapped in poverty cycles, hundreds, possibly thousands, of children are stuck working in gold mines in Burkina Faso, regarded as the War on Terror’s newest front line.
At the mine VICE News visited, children already lived and worked in extreme conditions. Now they are afraid terrorists will come to their mine and kill them. Less than eight miles away, suspected Jama'at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin (JNIM) militants, Al Qaeda’s local subsidiary, kill civilians, burn and loot shops and kidnap young couples.
Sitting on a mound of earth dug with shovels and pickaxes from the shaft next to it, Oumarou Ouedraogo, 14, says, “I’ve heard about terrorists killing people around Kaya, at a gold mine like this one… I’ve seen them on TV. They were dressed in black and had their faces covered. Most of us here are afraid of them.”
Burkina Faso, where Ouedraogo lives and works, is a country in West Africa’s semi-arid Sahel. It’s now at the center of a conflict in the wider region. Regarded as the newest front in the war on terror, groups linked to Islamic State and Al Qaeda have capitalized on ethnic tensions and disillusionment with governments to recruit fighters. The conflict has also drawn in local bandits and troops from the UN, France and the U.S.
When conflict spread from neighboring Mali to Burkina Faso in 2015 it was in the midst of a nascent gold rush. Commercial gold mines run by foreign companies had sprung up around the country. As almost always happens in Africa, informal mines followed, where those at the very fringes of the global economic system come to find a way out of poverty. Much of the gold they find eventually makes its way to Dubai, where it can enter international supply chains.
Ouedraogo is one of around 20,000 children working in Burkina Faso’s informal gold mines. The boys’ names in this story have been changed to protect them from reprisals. Terrorist groups are targeting the 400-800 mines dotted about the country, according to reports by Reuters and Crisis Group. They impose a tax on miners and force them to sell them the gold exclusively. In other cases, they simply overrun the mines, killing indiscriminately. In October of 2019, terrorists killed around 20 miners and injured many more at an informal mine in nearby Soum province.
Ostensibly, there is no security to protect the children and other miners from attack, although they say members of the Koglweogo, a Burkinabe vigilante group, are present at the mine. In the late afternoon, government rangers armed with automatic weapons ride up on a motorbike. They stop to tell the miners to vacate the area and because of the environmental damage they’re causing. They should not be digging in a national park.
Firmin Tiendrebeogo says he is 16, but looks some years younger. “I’ve been working on the site for two months now. I go down into the mine once a day and get lowered down on a rope. I [use a pickaxe] to find the gold,” he says.
Before he descends he leaves his shoes next to the shaft. All the miners leave their shoes on the surface, so if members of their team move on to work elsewhere, they don’t forget to return and pull their teammates out.
Next to some shafts are desk fans. Attached to tubes of polythene extending to the bottom of the pit, they provide ventilation, but the shafts are still dangerous, prone to collapse or flash floods. Sometimes descending to depths of 200 meters, a quarter of the children suffer working accidents at the mines. Many are psychologically traumatized, accident or none.
“I am always happy going down into the mines, because I think I will find gold.”
“I am always happy going down into the mines, because I think I will find gold,” says Tiendrebeogo, who lives here unaccompanied by parents or siblings. He wanders around near one of the shacks selling coffee. Pointing to some men playing table football, he says he hopes to have enough money to join in the game one day.
His parents and siblings live in a village several miles away and will receive some of the money he makes, but he hasn't found any gold since he arrived at the mine.
Over where the gold is extracted from the rocks, mercury is used, which over time causes breathing problems and cancer. All the men have to show is a nugget, about half the size of a pea. Often, the money the miners make is barely enough to sustain their activities at the mine, let alone allow them a way out.
UNICEF, the UN’s children’s agency, has been working for years alongside the Burkinabe government to get children out of mines. They have been successful in many cases, by providing education and skills that allow child miners to work in less dangerous places. They can’t get to those in areas overrun with terrorists, however. The conflict is making matters worse in other ways too.
“It’s led to many schools closing, which has a major impact on the number of children going to the mines,” Karim Sankara, a program officer at UNICEF, told VICE News.
Since the conflict began 2512 schools have been shut down, according to Sankara, which means 350,000 children are left without access to education. A large number of those go to work in mines instead, despite the increased risk from terror attacks.
“Thirteen schools were closed in the east last weekend, after being burnt down,” he added.
The government has child labor laws, which are designed to prevent the children from working in gold mines. Much like UNICEF, they are also struggling to get to mines worst affected by the conflict. State control has evaporated in many areas of the countryside, rendering the laws redundant.
Before they descend shafts some miners tie flashlights to their heads. Made from brightly colored plastic, designed for children, they are a reminder of the innocence lost in the depths of Burkina Faso’s informal gold mines.
Sitting by his mine shaft, Oumarou Ouedraogo says he wishes to own a house and have a family one day. He wears a necklace with a crucifix.
“On Sundays, I pray to God for protection,” he says.
Cover: A boy who says he is 16 years old gets lowered by a rope once a day to dig for gold with a pick axe. (Henry Wilkins/VICE News)