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Christians seek refuge after deadly attacks in Burkina Faso

Around 90 kilometres south of Dablo, the city of Kaya has become a refuge for those newly displaced

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A Burkina Faso's soldier stands (R) on a security perimeter set up around the site

Concerned about a rise in violence against Christians in Burkina Faso, Pastor Jacques Ouedraogo changed the time of his Sunday service as a precaution. He believes this is what saved his life.

Later, his church was one of two targeted by gunmen on May 12 in the town of Dablo in a series of deadly attacks on churches and a religious procession in the last two weeks in Burkina’s formerly peaceful Central North region.

“I could have been one of the martyrs who fell on Sunday,” said the priest.

“We’ve told ourselves our turn will come. Today Christians are potential targets. We’re all scared.”

In the wake of Sunday’s bloodshed, he and hundreds of residents fled Dablo. The town had previously served as a safe haven for some of the thousands displaced by violence in the country’s northern Sahel region, which has become a stronghold for militant groups with links to Islamic State and al Qaeda.

Around 90 kilometres south of Dablo, the city of Kaya has become a refuge for those newly displaced, including a farmer, who asked to be identified by the name Te Wende. Along with his his wife, mother, grandmother and two children, he was warned by neighbours to flee.

“When the shooting started, they called us straight away and told us to run far away,” he said.

“We don’t know where they came from or what they really wanted,” he said.

On Thursday, the United Nations warned that the Central North region had become the new epicentre for attacks.

The recent targeting of churches threatens to upend traditionally peaceful relations between the Muslim majority and Christians, who make up a quarter of Burkinabes.

“I call on Christians not to panic and not to yield to the temptation of vengeance, because that could be blind,” the Bishop of Kaya, Theophile Nare, said at a meeting of bishops in the capital on Friday.

The first church attack occurred in late April, when gunmen killed a Protestant pastor and five congregants. Subsequently, a Catholic priest and five parishioners were killed in the Dablo attack and a further four Catholics died in an attack on Tuesday.

No one has claimed responsibility, but the Burkinabe government has blamed “terrorist groups … attacking religion with the macabre aim of dividing us.”

Violent attacks linked to the strengthening jihadist insurgency have surged this year in Burkina as well as across the broader Sahel region, an arid expanse of scrubland just south of the Sahara desert.

Militants have also worked to sow ethnic tensions between farming and herding communities in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger in order to boost recruitment among marginalised communities.

On Thursday, Islamic State’s West African branch claimed responsibility for an ambush that killed 28 soldiers this week in Niger, one of the deadliest attacks against the military in Niger’s west in recent years.

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Ex-health minister arrested for embezzling Ebola funds in DR Congo

Ilunga, who resigned as health minister in July, was detained while hiding in an apartment in Kinshasa

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DR Congo's health minister resigns after removal from key Ebola response role
Former DR Congo health minister Oly Ilunga. (AFP)

Former DR Congo health minister Oly Ilunga has been arrested over allegations he embezzled public funds to tackle the Ebola epidemic, police said on Saturday.

Ilunga, who resigned as health minister in July after being removed as head of the country’s Ebola response team, was detained while hiding in an apartment in the capital Kinshasa ahead of a bid to flee the country, officers said.

He is in custody due to “misdemeanors of the mismanagement of funds allocated to the Ebola response,” police spokesman Colonel Pierrot-Rombaut Mwanamputu told AFP.

Ilunga will be referred to prosecutors on Monday, he added.

It comes after Ilunga was questioned in August as part of an inquiry into the management of funds to fight the outbreak, which has claimed more than 2,000 lives since August 2018.

Ilunga, 59, had already been banned from leaving the country.

He stepped down after criticising plans by the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO) to introduce a new, unlicensed vaccine to fight the epidemic.

His lawyer told AFP in September that some payments had been made to local chiefs after the killing of a WHO doctor in April.

More than 200,000 people have been vaccinated during DR Congo’s tenth and most serious Ebola epidemic.

It is the second-worst Ebola outbreak in history after more than 11,000 people were killed in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia between 2014 and 2016.

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Telemedicine revolution saving lives in Ivory Coast

The fledgling technology has long been championed by health advocates for rural economies.

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Telemedicine revolution in saving lives in Ivory Coast

Every time Catherine Coulibaly’s 19-year-old son had to make a routine appointment with the cardiologist for his heart condition, she gritted her teeth as she silently counted the financial cost.

It wasn’t just the hospital fee — there was the transport, food and accommodation, too, all of it amounting to a hefty burden for an Ivorian family on a modest income.

But thanks to telemedicine – consultations that doctors conduct through the internet or by phone – this cost is now a fading memory. 

Her son can book an appointment at a telemedicine facility in a nearby town in northern Ivory Coast.

There, he is attached to monitoring machines which send the data sent to Bouake University Hospital in the centre of the country, where it is scrutinised by a heart doctor.

The fledgling technology has long been championed by health advocates for rural economies.

Ivory Coast has become an African testbed for it, thanks to a project linking the Bouake hospital’s cardiac department with health centres in several northern towns, some of which are a four-hour drive away. 

Telemedicine “caused a sigh of relief for the population of Bouake, Boundiali, Korhogo, everyone,” says Auguste Dosso, president of the “Little Heart” association, which helps families with cardiac health issues.

Some 45 percent of the Ivorian population live below the poverty line, according to the World Bank’s latest estimate in 2017. And the minimum monthly wage — not always respected — is only around $100, or 90 euros. 

Heart disease surging

The pioneer behind the scheme is cardiologist Florent Diby, who set up an association called Wake Up Africa.

In Ivory Coast, heart disease, diabetes and other “lifestyle” ailments are surging, Diby explained. 

“Urbanisation is making people more sedentary, and there’s the rise in tobacco consumption, changes in diet, stress,” Diby said.

Three decades ago, only around one in eight of the Ivorian population had high blood pressure — now the figure is one in four, on a par with parts of Western Europe.

But in Ivory Coast — and across Africa — well-equipped cardiology units are rare.

“Ninety percent of heart attacks can be diagnosed by telemedicine, so for us cardiologists it’s a revolutionary technology,” said Diby.

The beauty of the telemedicine scheme is that neither the doctor nor the patient has to travel far. 

The cardiac patient is hooked up to the electrocardiogram (ECG) and other diagnostic machines with the help of a technician in a local health centre, which is connected to a computer in Bouake’s University Hospital. 

The cardiologist there can then see the results in real time, provide a diagnosis and prescribe treatment. 

The five-year-old project has already linked 10 health centres to the seven cardiologists at Bouake, enabling 4,800 patients in other towns to receive consultations by telemedicine each year. The goal is to expand this to 20 sites, doubling the intake.

Expertise France, the French public agency for international technical assistance, subsidises up to 185,000 euros of the network, which pays for equipment such as computers, artificial intelligence software and internet connections. 

Diby is now calling for telemedicine to be expanded in other medical fields such as neurology and psychiatry, not just in the Ivory Coast, but across West Africa too. 

That opinion is shared by other experts. Sixty per cent of Africans live in rural areas, where shortages of doctors are usually acute.

But numerous hurdles need to be overcome, especially investment in computers and access to the internet, according to a 2013 analysis published by the US National Library of Medicine. 

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Moroccan journalist arrested over “Illegal abortion”

Rights groups urged Moroccan authorities to release her, as her lawyers have firmly denied the “illegal abortion” charge.

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Hajar Raissouni. Photo credit - Amnesty.org

Hajar Raissouni writes for the Arabic-language daily Akhbar Al-Yaoum, which has a history of run-ins with the authorities.

She was arrested as she left a clinic in Rabat where her lawyer Saad Sahli said she had been undergoing treatment for internal bleeding. 

But the 28-year-old was examined by a medic and the prosecution said she showed signs of pregnancy and of having undergone a “late voluntary abortion”.

In a statement, it insisted her detention had “nothing to do with her profession as a journalist”.

On Friday, Rights groups urged Moroccan authorities to immediately release her, as her lawyers have firmly denied the “illegal abortion” charge.

Raissouni, who is religiously but not yet legally married, is also accused of having “sexual relations outside marriage” and faces a court hearing on Monday.

Her lawyers are lodging a complaint against police for forcing her to have a medical examination, her uncle Souleymane Raissouni told AFP.  

Also arrested were her fiancee, a doctor, a nurse and a secretary. 

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International on Friday joined social media users in calling for her release.

“Instead of intimidating Hajar Raissouni by prosecuting her on unjust charges, the authorities should immediately and unconditionally release her,” said Heba Morayef, Amnesty’s regional director.

Ahmed Benchemsi, regional communications director at HRW, echoed Morayef’s call for all charges to be dropped.

The case had “a whiff of political manipulation since the defendant is a reporter from one of Morocco’s last newspapers,” he said.

Touafik Bouachrine, the owner of Raissouni’s newspaper, was sentenced in November to 12 years in prison on charges of rape and other offences.

He also denies all charges and his lawyers say his trial was politically motivated.

Raissouni’s arrest sparked heated debate online, and some 150 journalists signed a petition against “campaigns of defamation” against her.

Moroccan law punishes abortions with up to five years in prison, except in cases where the life of the mother is in danger.

However, NGOs say up to 800 women have clandestine abortions every day in the North African country.

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