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Burkina Faso villagers mourn their Canadian friends killed in terror attack

Charlie Carrier, Louis Chabot, Suzanne Bernier, Yves Carrier, Gladys Chamberland and Maude Carrier are pictured with two locals of Manni village in Burkina Faso.

Congregation des soeurs de Notre-Dame de Perpetuel Secours

For the women who grow tomatoes and onions in this isolated village at the end of a long dirt road, the first shock came when the Canadian volunteers arrived. The six Quebeckers worked shoulder to shoulder with the Burkinabe women, planting seeds and hauling buckets of water. The villagers had never seen such a thing from white people before.

Just a few days later, the next shock arrived with a sickening finality: All six of the volunteers were killed in a terrorist attack in Burkina Faso's capital.

"Ever since I heard the news, I can't sleep at night," said Odile Tindano Bourgou, brushing away her tears as she stood under the blazing sun in the garden of Manni village.

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"I didn't expect a white person to be working side by side with me," she said in a quiet voice, offering an arm to a visitor because she thinks her hand is too dirty to shake. "It should have been just the beginning of a friendship."

She gazed at a row of pepper plants, their first green shoots emerging from the earth. Two weeks ago, Quebec schoolteacher Maude Carrier had helped her to plant the pepper seeds in her tiny patch in the community garden, where 35 women share the land. Then the teacher had cheerfully lugged heavy buckets of water to help her irrigate the soil.

"I felt she was just like me," Ms. Bourgou said. "I felt close to her. She wasn't bothered by working hard."

A row of pepper plants just beginning to sprout from the soil. A few shelves of paperbacks in a new community library. A cabinet filled with Canadian medicine bottles. These are among the legacies of the six Quebec volunteers who died when gunmen attacked a restaurant and hotel in Ouagadougou on Jan. 15.

Four of the volunteers were from the same family: Ms. Carrier, her brother Charlelie, her father Yves Carrier, and his wife Gladys Chamberland. The other two were their friends, Louis Chabot and Suzanne Bernier.

They were volunteering at a Catholic mission, Congregation des soeurs de Notre-Dame de Perpetuel Secours, which has projects across Burkina Faso and other countries in the developing world.

When the villagers learned that the Canadians had been killed, there was first a widespread disbelief. "The whole town was silent and dead," said Sister Marguerite Parkouda, the mother superior of the convent in Manni. "Then a huge number of people came here, to us, to hear about it, because they couldn't believe it."

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There was an outpouring of grief among Christians and Muslims across the town. For days afterward, villagers of all religions trudged into the dusty compound of the nuns to give their condolences. Most were crying.

"They heard the news on the radio, but they couldn't believe it had happened to people they had known and worked with," Sister Parkouda said. "They felt that this tragedy had happened to them."

Sister Parkouda, a Burkinabe nun who had worked closely with the Canadians on all of their projects in Manni, is among those who have suffered the most in the past week. "I have a huge feeling of pain," she told The Globe and Mail.

"After what I saw them do for people here, they didn't deserve this death. I can't imagine that people who came here to do good things could have this happen to them. It makes my heart rebel."

The Canadians had brought a suitcase filled with medicine, which will be distributed to Manni's poorest families. They raised funds to create a small public library. They brought equipment for a soap-making centre, and they brought cement to repair the irrigation canal for the community garden.

Sister Parkouda shows all of this proudly to the visiting journalist, and remembers how Yves Carrier had blueprints for a bigger library, a new school and many other plans to help the village. Asked if this work might still continue, she falls into grief. "It's finished," she says. She cannot believe that Canadians will want anything to do with Burkina Faso any more – although the Globe and Mail journalist tries to tell her that this might not be true.

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Around the village, people share their memories of the Canadians with deep emotion. Mathieu Dabongou, co-founder of a private secondary school in Manni, says the Canadians gave two soccer balls to the school – and then were shocked to see as many as 100 children in a single classroom at the school. Every night, at the village's Six Baobabs restaurant, the Canadians gathered with Mr. Dabongou and other teachers to discuss how to build a new school. "We became like a family," he says.

Yvan Namountougou, a 42-year-old painter who lives near the convent, worked side-by-side with the Canadians preparing the convent walls for a fresh coat of paint. Then they gave him the equivalent of about $500 to help him build a roof and windows for his own unfinished home.

He received the money on the night of their death. He tried to phone them to thank them, ran out of credit on his cellphone, went to buy more airtime, and heard the news of the terrorist attack on his way home. He tried repeatedly to call them, but there was no answer.

"It really hurt me," he says. "I haven't been able to sleep for the past week. They touched my heart. My whole family is in mourning. Even my father's death didn't affect me as much as this. An entire family died, and that's very sad."

The Canadians also brought help for the convent's elderly watchman, Eric Mano, who had fallen ill. The watchman remembers how his illness prevented him from getting out of bed when the Canadians visited his home. So they came into his bedroom to greet him – an act that astonished him. "They came right into my room," he marvelled. "I was very happy."

The nuns haven't yet dared to tell him that the Canadians are dead. In his fragile health, they fear it might be too much of a shock for him to handle.

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