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‘Nobody sees me’: Photographing displacement in Burkina Faso’s capital

‘Since I have been here, nobody from the government has ever come to help.’

More than 30,000 Burkinabé have made their way down to the capital city, Ouagadougou, over the past few years, escaping a jihadist conflict that has enveloped large parts of the country and displaced more than two million people overall.

Yet despite the city’s safety and employment opportunities, the displaced people have been struggling with high rents and a lack of assistance and recognition from humanitarian organisations and different governments.

Late last year, Burkinabé photographer Warren Saré, working alongside Italian reporter Giulia Tringali, spent time documenting the lives of the city’s displaced people, who live in informal settlements, with host families, in rented buildings, and some in tents.

Saré, who grew up homeless, said he undertook the assignment because he wants displaced people to be more visible in the city, and because he wanted to share with them his own journey from the streets to working as an international photographer. 

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Read more: Warren Saré on photographing Ouagadougou’s displaced people

What motivated me to photograph these people was to be able to meet them, encourage them, share my life experience with them, and motivate them to carry on living and not give up.

I believe that, as a former street child who has lived through difficult situations but who has been able to integrate, yes, I could pass on to them my technique of integration.

I got to know them better. In their eyes, I read worry – it’s as if they are in transit. What I didn’t expect, and what surprised me, was their joy of living despite the difficult conditions they find themselves in.

Their main visibility is when they beg in the streets. Their camps are not known as camps for internally displaced people as such. I myself am surprised to see them all together. The people of Ouagadougou don’t know where they live.

Their main visibility is when they beg in the streets. Their camps are not known as camps for internally displaced people as such. I myself am surprised to see them all together. The people of Ouagadougou don’t know where they live.

Thanks to the press, they will be more visible, and that could encourage some people of goodwill to give them more help. So it’s very important to humanise them. My dream is that this is not something that is forgotten and falls into oblivion.

“With pictures I can make these people closer to us, more human and thus visible,” Saré said. “I hope that people, after looking at these portraits, will choose to stop at the traffic lights… respecting more the burden that each one of us carries.”

The stories documented by Saré and Tringali are diverse. They include a school student writing songs calling for peace; a farmer who is now working as a security guard; and a mother of eight children who has been begging on the streets for the past five years.

While striving to improve their lives – often with the support of local associations, neighbours, and friends – the individuals who spoke to Saré and Tringali also described facing discrimination and neglect.

Keen to preserve an image of calm in the capital, previous governments have denied the presence of displaced people and have even set up roadblocks to prevent them from coming into the city.

The current military junta has shifted that position a little and now offers social and economic services for some displaced people. However, humanitarian support is still very limited, according to the individuals who spoke to Saré and Tringali.

Scroll through the photos and text below (edited for length and clarity) for more. And for background context, read our briefing on the broader humanitarian situation in Burkina Faso, and another on the coping mechanisms people are adopting in conflict-hit areas.

Abdoul Karim, 16, from Markoye: ‘I would like to sing for peace’

I left my village at the end of 2019 when the war started. When [jihadists] chased us out, I came here with my uncle and his wife. We ran away with other people from the village but not everyone made it. Some died on the road from hunger and thirst. 

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The terrorists are people of the village. They are people with whom we have shared moments in the past. There are those who earn money to strengthen Islam… others are simply thieves.

I have neighbours and friends here in Ouagadougou, so I don’t think too much about [the past]. Only when we talk or look at our phones do I remember what happened. Here, I play football with friends and I enrolled in school. Now, things are fine.

My dream is to be an artist, a singer, to create a good mood for people and to give courage, happiness, and joy to others so they can forget the past, and so that they don’t give up. I would like to sing for peace. I have always thought this since I was little.

“My country”: A song written and shared by Abdoul
Burkina Faso is a B for bravery
The courage of Thomas Sankara

Burkina Faso is a U for union
More than 60 ethnic groups united by culture

Burkina Faso is an R for reconciliation
My country of tolerance

Burkina Faso is a K for Karité (shea butter)
The softness of your nature

Burkina Faso is an I for intelligence
The quick wittedness of your inhabitants

Burkina Faso is an N, the nourisher
Sharing as a way of life

Burkina Faso is an A for agriculture
The pathway to self-sufficiency

Burkina Faso is an F for force
Straight like the sacred baobab

Burkina Faso is a A for ancestors
Living under the kindness of our forefathers

Burkina Faso is an S for solidarity
My country of living together

Burkina Faso is an O for optimism
Looking towards a positive future

Burkina Faso
My country of honest men and women

I am Tuareg, and here in Ouagadougou I feel good about my culture. We love to have tea and we often do it outside our door, inviting the neighbours. If we have a small Bluetooth speaker, we listen to traditional music and dance with neighbours.

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In my life, I saw a lot of things that I didn’t think that I would see. I was afraid to not be able to sing anymore, but here I am. I’ve learnt that I could still feel good and sing again to bring joy to others.

To the youngsters who have experienced almost the same things, I would like to tell them to not get discouraged and not to let go of their heads, because it could happen to anyone. One day the war will end and we will be united and live together.

This is a medium shot of a boy smiling as he runs in a corridor in between to groups of houses.

Ramata Amadou, 34, from Gorom-Gorom: ‘I hope to find a place where we can sleep peacefully’

When I was in my village, near Gorom-Gorom, I cultivated land and sold the harvest. I could easily take care of my family with my husband. He worked in artisanal gold mines and we had a lot of cows and sheep.

But when the terrorists started to attack the villages around us and took our cattle, we decided to flee and join our village chief who had already moved to Ouagadougou. After the first attacks, we left [and] followed the first wave arriving in Ouagadougou.

I am 34 and have eight children. I came here hoping to find help for my kids, but nobody sees me. Since I have been here, nobody from the government has ever come to help. It’s really difficult, so I beg on the streets. I have been in Ouagadougou for five years.

I hope to soon find a place where we can sleep peacefully, have some human dignity, and be able to eat. What I hope for my children’s future is that they can find work and manage on their own, because I can’t take care of everyone.

The luck I have had is that as soon as we saw that the situation was getting strange we left, and so we did not experience the violence directly. Nobody has died in my family so far, fortunately.

But the terrorists took all our things when they came to the village. They left with our herds. For me, it was better to stay in the village, but since the country has become strange, it is no longer possible, so it is better here.


Tall Mohamed Fadel, 22, from Yakuta: ‘With time, things changed’

I left my village in 2020. There were attacks on the village all of the time, so we left. It was not just me who left. Many of us did, because the situation had become too bad. 

READ:  Now there's a chance of justice for Thomas Sankara, it's useful to review what got him killed

When I arrived [in Ouagadougou] nothing was working and I was in pain. I was thinking too much and I couldn’t even eat or sleep. But then, with time… things changed a bit, and now they are better.

I am renting a house and I pay for it myself. I am an electrician and I manage to pay the rent at the end of every month. I took the tools I had and started going around the neighbourhood doing small repairs, and I’ve tried to get by with that so far.

I learnt to write lyrics [through a project coordinated by a Burkinabé artist], and thanks to the games we did and the music we created [through the project] I got distracted from my situation.

A poem written and shared by Fadel

I left with it in my pockets,            
the beautiful look of a beggar deprived of everything.             
He went from door to door, dressed in blue overalls and a beautiful character, asking for help. Despite his suffering, he kept a smile of a pink flower on his face.            
This beggar was as wise as my grandfather.             
We were proud of him.            
Now, who will touch my heart but his kindness and courage?

I had a dream,            
Little bird sings loudly.            
Love for the country.

I’ve never thought of leaving my country. If I have the chance, I want to fight for it, to take my village back, so that peace will return. Honestly, I don’t think about going off on an adventure and migrating. I have my parents here and I have to stay and help them.

There are three main challenges displaced people are facing in the capital: housing, work, and transportation. Not having a house to sleep in makes life really difficult, and those who have a house have to pay rent each month and it is expensive. 

Work is another challenge. Without it you cannot live here in the capital. I have learnt how to get work with my little experience, but I would need training and certificates to be able to get more business. I dream of opening a shop to sell electronic tools.. 

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Finally, the third challenge concerns transport. It is difficult to work in the capital if you don’t have your own means of transport. You can be called for a job on the other side of the city and you can’t go there. It’s very difficult without a motorbike and I am experiencing this problem too.


Boubacar Guindo, 45, Malian refugee: ‘I hope to make it on my own’

This is a photo of Boubacar Guindo with his family.

I was a tour guide in Dogon country [in central Mali], but now I look after horses in Ouagadougou. In August 2022, I was in my village and it was attacked [by jihadists]. They killed two people and injured others. All our herds fled. They stole everything from us, and that was when I was there. Since then, the situation has gotten much worse.

I preferred to move my family [to Ouagadougou] but I don’t expect anything from the state. To get help from the government, we need to enter into camps where they can register us. But I preferred to stay outside the camps because entering them is not that easy. I prefer to do everything on my own and get by as much as I can.

There are a lot of displaced people in Ouagadougou, but also in the other big cities in the country. The government doesn’t know all of the people that are displaced outside the camps, so it’s difficult. When you go to the camps, you have some help at the end of the month, some sacks of rice, but not big things.

Many [displaced] people prefer to stay in small towns near Ouagadougou because life in the capital is more expensive. People prefer the smaller towns closer to their homes, hoping that the situation will calm down. 

At the same time, there are others who follow their chiefs and arrive in the capital thinking there will be more opportunities to work and live, but they find themselves asking for money in the streets.

READ:  Gunmen kill about 20 in attack in eastern Burkina Faso

I have some friends who help me pay for school for the kids, and for sacks of rice. These are friends who I can call and ask to lend me [money] so I can pay for little things for my family when I have nothing. But I hope to make it on my own.

When I was a tourist guide, I worked with horses, and I made many friends all over the world. A friend from Austria knew the situation in my region, so she suggested that I go to Ouagadougou to take care of her horses, and this is what I do in the morning and evening.

I don’t like to say if I feel Burkinabé or Malian or whatever. Often that’s what leads to conflicts, saying I’m this and you’re that. I like Burkina Faso – people don’t give you problems. I don’t have the nationality, but I’m a bit Burkinabé.

[Still], I prefer the village to the city. I like tradition. I prefer my children to grow up in tradition rather than here. If my children grow up here, and then at some point we  return to the village, they will be lost there.

At home, I used to make music with various traditional instruments. Here, I no longer do that. I hope [the conflict] will end, but I have been hoping that for 10 years. When tourism [in Mali] decreased in 2010 and 2011, we said it would improve the following year, but after 10 years we no longer say that.

I think [the conflict] is the population’s fault and not just the state’s. We love to blame others, but if I am fair and the other person is fair to me, we advance more easily. So if I am to make an appeal to the population, I will address myself to the young people who are inside the armed groups to ask them to lay down their arms and go back to their family and let us live as we did before.


Issiaka Oumaro, 43, from Gorom-Gorom: ‘I take care of everything and everyone’

This is a medium shot portrait of Issiaka Oumaro, 43, from Gorom-Gorom. He is wearing a bright green and black button down shirt.

We ran away because of the war. I preferred to run away because I didn’t want to join their armed group. I have been here for three years. I fled with my mother and my four children and my wife, who unfortunately died. Now, I take care of everything and everyone. 

We came from Gorom-Gorom, where I was a farmer. I was born into a family of farmers, and I learnt to farm from my parents. Here in Ouagadougou, I am a security guard.

With the earnings from my job as a watchman, I cannot meet all the family’s needs. I have to pay for one house for me and my children, and another one for my mother. Only one of my children is in school, and feeding everyone is not easy. I need help.

What I would like the world to know is that up there in my village, the gunmen mostly attack the Fulani and stigmatise them, and many Fulani are inside terrorist groups, so when they come to other communities to ask for work, people think that the Fulani are terrorists. I would like the world to know that not all Fulani are terrorists, and we ourselves ask our brothers to give up their weapons.

Before fleeing, I know that some people negotiated with terrorists to avoid being killed. In my case, however, the first person in charge of the village, as soon as he heard about the attacks, he ran away. Then the whole village followed him. We did not have time to negotiate in any way because they gave us an ultimatum to leave the area quickly.

Two young women are using a large wooden mortar and pestle outside some homes.
Food is prepared at a displacement camp in Ouagadougou. More than two million Burkinabé have been uprooted by violence in recent years, and dozens of towns are under siege. Warren Saré/TNH

Edited by Philip Kleinfeld.

This story was originally published by The New Humanitarian.

The New Humanitarian puts quality, independent journalism at the service of the millions of people affected by humanitarian crises around the world. Find out more at www.thenewhumanitarian.org.


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By WARREN SARÉ and GIULIA TRINGALI

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