For Reporter, Trauma Comes With Exposing Ugly Truths of a Brutal Conflict

OUAGADOUGOU, Burkina Faso — For Mariam Ouédraogo, retelling the stories of the lashings and rapes of women by armed groups in Burkina Faso can be as traumatic as when she was documenting these atrocities as a journalist.

But it is a horror she is asked to replay again and again, at a great toll.

Ms. Ouédraogo, winner of the most prestigious international award for war correspondents, is frequently invited to discuss her reporting, and the ordeal of doing so never gets easier.

“These interviews are difficult for me because I know the questions they are going to ask me,” she said. “When I talk about it, I relive the situation again.”

On Oct. 8, Ms. Ouédraogo, 41, became the first female African journalist to win the Bayeux Calvados-Normandy Award, for a series reporting on Burkina Faso’s devastating conflict against armed jihadist groups.

The fighting has killed thousands, displaced close to two million civilians and left at least 40 percent of the country’s 21.5 million citizens living outside of state control, according to analysts and government officials.

Ms. Ouédraogo’s reports focused on the suffering the fighting has inflicted on Burkina Faso’s women and girls, in a conflict where rape has been used as a tool of terror and control. Just this week, the government said that about 50 women in northern Burkina Faso had been kidnapped by armed insurgents.

Her prizewinning series told the stories of internally displaced women who were raped by armed groups and whipped while fleeing their villages. Some of those raped have given birth to children and have been rejected by their families and communities, and at least one of the women tried to kill herself.

In one of the prizewinning articles, Ms. Ouédraogo writes about a 28-year-old mother of five, who, after being raped by men from an armed group and left bleeding on the ground, walks to a neighboring village — only to discover all the health workers have fled because of the attacks.

The man raped her as six others pointed their guns at her. “It was a terrible moment for me,” she murmured, her eyes filled with tears. They wouldn’t stop even when she cried in distress. “Be quiet, or we will kill you. Your life is worth nothing to us,” they responded to her pleas.

Ms. Ouédraogo is the second African journalist to win a Bayeux award in the 29-year history of the prize, which is given by the city of Bayeux, France, and the Normandy Region, and which typically rewards work produced for major French and Western media agencies. She writes for a national state-run newspaper, Sidwaya, with a print circulation of between 3,000 and 5,000 copies a day, making her win all the more remarkable.

Her achievement will “go down in the history of African journalism,” said Guézouma Sanogo, the head of the Burkina Journalists’ Association.

Despite the devastating toll on civilians, Burkina Faso’s conflict rarely makes international headlines, a lack of attention that Ms. Ouédraogo attributes in part to its “monotony.”

“Maybe people are tired of us because the crisis has been going on since 2015, while the crisis in Ukraine is recent and it is between two European countries,” she said. “Often, we talk about geographical proximity, and one death in the United States is worth a thousand in Burkina.”

The notification that she had won the prize came amid an eight-month pause from reporting in the field, because of a resurgence of the post-traumatic stress disorder she developed while reporting her series.

Part of her anxiety, she said, is a result of being unable to change the situation of many of the women she has interviewed.

“These people are in distress. Every time they call you, they tell you about their problems and hardship,” she said. “It is hard for me because I see their needs but I don’t have the means to help them.”

Ms. Ouédraogo doesn’t see herself as a war reporter in the classic sense, nor does she have the typical trappings of one, like a bulletproof vest emblazoned with “Press” or a Twitter profile picture of herself wearing a ballistics helmet.

While she has encountered gunfire in her life, it was not during her reporting trips but during the civil war in the early 2000s in neighboring Ivory Coast, where she was born. Her war reporting has always focused not on the frontline fighting, but on the war’s impact on civilians.

“Being a war reporter is too scary,” she said. “I’m just a journalist who is interested in human life, who cares about other people.”

But whether the reporting is done while embedded with troops on the front lines, or done from the aftermath of a town raided by armed jihadist groups, the stress can be extreme, and Ms. Ouédraogo has been advocating that both journalists and the media organizations who employ them take reporters’ mental health more seriously.

Liradan Philippe Ada, a television journalist in Burkina Faso who has embedded with the country’s military, said he has endured nightmares after returning from risky trips, and he agreed that newsrooms needed to be more sensitive to the challenges reporters face in the field. But he resisted Ms. Ouédraogo’s encouragement to see a psychologist.

“Women are more sensitive, more soft, more vulnerable,” Mr. Ada said. “There are things that touch women more easily than men — men have hard hearts.”

That attitude is one she encounters frequently, Ms. Ouédraogo said.

“That’s how we are always caricatured, us women: as emotional beings,” she said. “We have sensitive hearts, just as there are sensitive men. I know many men have not been able to read my articles.”

“He needs to get prepared, because it will come,” she said of Mr. Ada and the consequences of dealing with what he has witnessed. “Everyone can be a victim of stress.”

The Bayeux award is among the 15 prizes that Ms. Ouédraogo has received since she began her career in 2013 as a reporter for Sidwaya, which translates into “The Truth is Coming” in Mooré, the local language of the dominant ethnic group in Burkina Faso.

After finishing high school, Ms. Ouédraogo studied law for two years, but changed to journalism because she felt it better served the public.

“In law, after the judge’s decision, there is always one who wins and one who loses. Also, it is not always the one who is right who wins,” she said. Whereas in journalism, she noted, “You just give information.”

“I want to write to have a positive impact,” she added. “I can’t stand human misery.”

Ms. Ouédraogo is known at the paper for her dogged reporting on difficult subjects, like the rights of the disabled people who beg on the streets of Ouagadougou, the capital, and of prostitutes who have given birth to the children of their clients.

“We can say that she dares; she takes on difficult subjects,” said Sidwaya’s chief photographer, Remi Zoeringré.

While he frequently collaborates with Ms. Ouédraogo on her stories, Mr. Zoeringré did not photograph her prizewinning series because she knew the women wouldn’t speak about the sexual violence they had suffered in front of a man. Instead, a cartoonist represented the grim realities these women faced, in illustrations that made the front page of editions of the newspaper in April and May of last year.

Despite the sensitive topics she covers, Ms. Ouédraogo said that her work has never been censored, and Burkina Faso’s relatively independent press culture has withstood the country’s authoritarian regimes.

But the country’s media outlets are coming under increasing strain as the Islamist insurgency intensifies in the north and east of the country — and after not one but two military coups in 2022, one in January and the latest in October.

Mr. Sanogo, the head of the Burkina Journalists’ Association, said the two recent coups and the deteriorating security situation across the country, driven by groups connected to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, remain the biggest concerns to press freedom in Burkina Faso.

The leader of the January coup, Lt. Col. Paul-Henri Sandaogo Damiba, who was in turn ousted by Capt. Ibrahim Traoré this fall, had spoken out against the press and complained about their portrayal of the conflict.

But the situation for the country’s journalists was already becoming difficult during the government of the democratically elected Roch Marc Christian Kaboré. In 2019, the Kaboré government passed laws restricting reporting on military operations and criminalized publishing stories that would “demoralize the military.”

“The psychological pressure on journalists is becoming greater and greater,” Mr. Sanogo said.

Ms. Ouédraogo said she is concerned that the domestic and international media coverage of her recent win, which comes with a 7,000 euro prize, could make her reporting more difficult and fears it might endanger her family members living in conflict areas.

“I’m afraid like any Burkinabè and citizen who is in a country at war,” she said, using the demonym for people from Burkina Faso. “The enemy is everywhere.”

Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris.

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