Scrawled onto a cement gravestone in the village of Tchombangou is the date when the calm of the remote community in southwest Niger was shattered: Friday, Nov. 22, 2019.
Before dawn that day, gunmen approached on motorbikes across the surrounding scrubland. Their target: Boubacar Lawey, the 95-year-old village chief who walked with a cane and for 55 years had settled local disputes, collected taxes and registered births and deaths.
While residents slept, the men led Lawey a short way from the village and shot him dead.
Lawey wasn’t the only local leader they were after. A West African affiliate of Islamic State killed or abducted the chiefs of at least three other nearby villages that day, said Marsadou Soumaila, the top government official in the department of Ouallam, where the attacks took place.
“That day, the war started between us,” said Lawey’s son, Moumouni Boubacar.
The ambushes were part of rapidly growing violence by groups linked to al Qaeda and Islamic State in the Sahel, a band of arid terrain south of the Sahara Desert. In the past four years, thousands of people have been killed in attacks in three Sahel countries – Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso, conflict data show. France, the United States and neighboring countries have deployed thousands of troops to try to secure the area. Millions have been displaced and thousands of schools have shut, as these groups strive to win control of rural communities and rid the region of international forces.
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