Gunshots resounded across the evening sky above Splendid Hotel and Cappuccino Café in Ouagadougou, the heart and capital of Burkina Faso on January 15. The West African country known for its relative religious and ethnic harmony was shaken by news of a terrorist onslaught they had never seen happen on Burkinabè soil.
Hours later, the Al-Qaeda-linked extremist group, Al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the attacks that left 29 dead and at least 56 others wounded. The rampage eerily resembled the November 2015 attack on the Radisson Blu Hotel in neighboring Mali; both locations were popular among Westerners and United Nations officials, and the assaults were admitted by the same terrorist group.
According to CNN, the victims were of about 18 nationalities. Among them was Michael James Riddering—American missionary, director of missions organization Sheltering Wings and friend of the Collaboratory’s Yako Education Group.
Seniors Jessica Martin and Emilie Smetak were on a Collaboratory site team trip with the Yako Education Project. They were at dinner with a team from Sheltering Wings in downtown Ouagadougou when the attacks broke out just a few minutes away from the café.
“All of a sudden, someone got a text about possible hostages. We kept getting news reports regarding what had just happened,” said Martin, a senior mathematics major.
Mike Riddering was at the Cappuccino Café when Al-Mourabitoun assailants stormed in after detonating bombs. They proceeded to take multiple hostages. Meanwhile, phone calls were exchanged between the team and Riddering’s wife, Amy. Both sides anticipated further news on Riddering’s whereabouts—news that would eventually prove to be tragic as Riddering was confirmed dead.
Riddering’s work with Sheltering Wings involved running an orphanage, school, clinic and a child sponsorship program. Martin, Smetak and the Yako Education Group spent most of their site team trip with Riddering and his colleagues. They had the privilege of listening to Riddering’s ideas and observing Sheltering Wings’ projects. Smetak described how Mike had shared with them “personal experiences that went beyond working,” even taking the team for a camp-out one night.
At a time when race relations underlie many of the world’s tensions, the actions of radical groups like Al-Mourabitoun and ISIS continue to trigger fear across the globe. The issue of Islamist extremism is present in political debates and every platform of mass media. Some cite the fear of extremist, violent religion to justify denying asylum to Syrian refugees, amidst the complex and multifaceted migrant crisis that plagues Europe today.
“It is upsetting [when the media] takes what a few people did and extrapolate it to such a large population of Muslims that were so kind and welcoming to us,” said Smetak. “A trinket-seller told us, ‘Please don’t think these are actual Burkinabè people. We are hurting with you.’”
The actions of groups like Al-Mourabitoun endanger all peoples, regardless of beliefs. In this case, it was the lives of both Christians and Muslims in Burkina Faso. According to Smetak, “We’re dealing not with religion, but with individuals.”
After the terrorist attacks, Burkina Faso underwent three days of national mourning. Unlike many multicultural countries, Burkina Faso is known for its deeply-rooted, yet peaceful ethnic and religious integration, especially between its two biggest religious populations: Islam and Christianity.
Amy Riddering spoke to Martin and Smetak about how both Christians and Muslims had come to be with the families of siege victims, accompanying them throughout the grieving process. After the attacks in Ouagadougou, Martin saw authentic interreligious harmony and support: “I think there’s more separation [between races] here in America. In Burkina, it didn’t matter; it didn’t have anything to do with religion, it was people with people.”
According to The Guardian and Burkinabè President, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, the three jihadis who went on the rampage died.
In the media, there is a tendency to focus on the number placed on a death toll. The headlines often command attention, to the extent that it can overshadow the legacy of those who were sacrificed. Faces, names, lives of those victims who came from a variety of backgrounds, nationalities and different walks of life, all told a different story.
“[The attacks] just reaffirm the need to continue the reconciliation between Christians and Muslims, the reconciliation between different cultures,” said Smetak.
Reconciliation often takes on the form of small gestures, the willingness to engage one another and the decision to take the first step in bridging a gap. Reconciliation is not reserved to Burkina Faso. It is very much needed in America, in Pennsylvania and even at Messiah College.