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 violence of the jihadists who strike her country since 2015.

Her gaze wavers between worry and dejection, contrasting with the energy of her rebellious curls and the shine of her yellow jumpsuit. This 42-year-old woman, the first African woman to win the Bayeux War Correspondents Prize in 2022, goes to the front every night and every day. Tirelessly.

“It’s my cross,” says this Muslim woman, employee of the state daily Sidwaya, and recently invited to a conference on investigative journalism in Johannesburg, with simplicity.

Burkina is caught in a spiral of violence perpetrated by jihadist groups affiliated with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda which were already hitting neighboring Mali and Niger. They left more than 17,000 dead and displaced more than 2 million people within the country.

Collection of “atrocities”

For four years now, Mariam Ouedraogo has been writing about “sexual violence linked to terrorism, mainly rape”, which is difficult to address “because here, in Burkina, everything related to sexuality is taboo”. Rape even more. Victims find it difficult to confide “because it affects their privacy and dignity”.

Mariam, mother of a 7-year-old girl, formed strong bonds with these women who trusted her. Beyond the story of the violence, she keeps in touch to listen to them and tell what happened next, the repudiation by their families, the pregnancies resulting from this violence, the birth of these children from the trauma.

Receiving these “atrocities”, Mariam felt upset to the point of not being able to maintain a necessary, beneficial perspective. She has been struggling for a long time now with symptoms of post-traumatic stress, insomnia, anxiety, depression.

“Every time they told me about their rapes, it was as if I was being raped in their place,” she says, her eyes veiled with emotion. Perhaps I did not know how to put distance between what I was told and me who was there, just to collect. » Today, “every time they are in distress, they call me. Unfortunately I see myself as powerless”, which gives rise to “an inner conflict which, to this day, persecutes me. »

Mariam Ouedraogo was already interested in the wounded in life, in vulnerable people. The legacy of an exceptional maternal grandmother, a “lady of the heart” who fed and welcomed all the “social cases” in her neighborhood. “Our courtyard was like a refuge for all people in difficulty, marginalized people, widows and orphans,” she remembers. If she went out and left a pair of shoes, when she came back the grandmother would have given them to her. “She felt that me and my sisters had enough, that we didn’t need it. »

” Fear in the belly “

When the jihadist attacks began, the journalist first became interested in the women involved in the self-defense groups. Then she realized that “in the killings, women were not automatically killed. I wondered why.” She goes out into the field. “And then I understood: we traumatize them differently. I knew they were being raped, kidnapped, sequestered. »

Her grandmother was reestablishing social justice in her own small way. Mariam is part of her lineage thanks to journalism. “I am sensitive to human suffering, looking at the little things around me that, to others, may seem mundane. I capture everything that is pain,” says this highly sensitive person.

She won’t stop. “The milestone has been reached, I continue on the subject of rape. These women need me.” Even if it means losing sleep forever. “Every night I am at a crossroads, between the army and the terrorists. I direct people, populations “Flee, they are coming, they are here!” Every morning I wake up exhausted,” she says.

From the capital Ouagadougou, where there have already been attacks, she goes about a hundred kilometers to meet displaced women. ” No risk does not exist. If they are everywhere, no one is safe, she says, a bit fatalistic. We leave with fear in our stomachs, but we go anyway. »