DJIBO – When the jihadis started coming to the town in northern Burkina Faso just to buy food — and not kill people — nervous residents didn't know what to think.
“We don’t know if it is a pause in fighting or if it will resume. We are just waiting,” said one resident of Djibo, the arid, remote town regarded as the current epicenter of the country's extremist violence.
While Burkina Faso's government never confirmed negotiating with Islamic extremists, others said the lull in fighting earlier this year was a sign that a cease-fire of sorts had been reached with the militants blamed for thousands of deaths in recent years.
Now, though, there are growing signs that that truce might be short-lived.
While Djibo remains relatively calm, fighting has surged across the country. More than 50 people died in multiple attacks in a single week in April, including two Spanish journalists and an Irish conservationist. The attacks have continued in May.
Suspected jihadis killed 15 people attending a baptism near the town of Tin-Akoff, marking the fourth time this month that the area has been targeted by militants.
“While some factions might be negotiating and sticking to the agreements, others are not and could torpedo these negotiations,” said Assane Diallo, mediation advisor for The Center for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Swiss-based organization.
Islamic extremist violence already has left thousands dead and displaced more than 1 million people in this landlocked country that had long been spared the kind of jihadi violence that destabilized neighbors Mali and Niger.
Before presidential elections in November, Burkina Faso's government began quietly negotiating with the jihadists wreaking havoc in the country, according to a diplomat, aid workers, security analysts and two men who say they were militants before the tentative cease-fire.
The secret talks with at least one faction of jihadists active in Burkina Faso — the al-Qaida-linked group known as JNIM — took place near Djibo, the current epicenter of the violence.
The deal included the jihadis allowing peaceful elections to proceed last year in exchange for the release of about 100 prisoners who had been detained for years on accusations of links to extremists. The arrangement also allowed for the militants to move freely in Djibo so they could visit the market and family members, according to multiple sources familiar with the talks.
Initially the tentative truce appeared to be paying off: There was a nearly 50% reduction in clashes between security forces and the jihadis from November to January compared to the three months prior, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.
Still, there were early signs that the government's mixed messages were undermining the deal. One man who said he'd fought alongside the jihadis said there was confusion about whether anything had really changed.
“Even if we all put down the guns and come back to the community, we don’t have anything to do. We don’t have jobs. The same army might say that we are all delinquents and start arresting us again,” said the 27-year-old, who spoke on condition that AP use his ‘nom de guerre,’ Mohamed Taoufiq, citing fear of government recriminations.
The government army has been accused of committing human rights abuses against people perceived to be working with the jihadis, particularly the ethnic Fulani, who are dominant in Djibo.
While civilians and extremists have so far have been able to coexist in Djibo, the surrounding villages are controlled by jihadis who impose Shariah law on the population, forcing women to cover themselves and men to cut their pants. Women are buying so many veils to hide their faces, that the price spiked nearly tenfold this year, locals said.
The government's minister of reconciliation said earlier this year that the government would never negotiate with “international terrorists," though was willing to take back the local Burkinabe fighters among their ranks.
Zephirin Diabre said it was the country’s responsibility to bring back “children who were recruited, indoctrinated, influenced, which led to mistakes to take arms against their fatherland."
But there are no established systems to demobilize and reintegrate those who return. And communities said there was a limit to how far the negotiations could go from the start.
“There are things we’ll never agree on, like Shariah law. We can negotiate if we’re able to live like normal human beings,” one Djibo resident told The Associated Press amid the lull in fighting.
Some of the jihadis themselves had said they regretted their actions and just wanted to come home.
After three years of working with JNIM, first as a fighter on the front lines and then as a spy, Abu Asharawi said he was relieved when his commanders told him to stop in October, because a deal had been reached. The AP was unable to independently verify that he was a former jihadi though others identified him as having been among the fighters' ranks.
“I was so glad to hear the order to let down our guns, because that’s what I was longing for. We were tired of fighting and seeing people killed. We did not know how to find the solution,” he said.
Still, there have been early signs that not all the jihadis are ready to put down their weapons for good. In a propaganda video filmed in February seen by AP, some militants pledged to continue fighting the government. They promised civilians, though, they wouldn’t be targeted so long as they don’t help the military.
“Let no one be afraid," said a jihadi in the video. "If you don’t betray us, we will never deceive you.”