A volunteer force set up to help Burkina Faso's beleaguered military fight militants has suffered huge casualties since it was created less than 16 months ago.
According to an AFP tally, more than 200 members of the Volunteers for the Defence of the Motherland (VDP) have died since January 2020.
A member of the force says at least 40 have been killed since the start of this year alone.
"Since January, not a week has gone by when we haven't mourned the death of a volunteer," said Souleymane Sawadogo, a 47-year-old farmer serving in the far north of the West African country.
In latest attack, an ambush against a mixed army-VDP unit on Monday at Tanwalbougou, in the eastern province of Gourma, left six VDPs dead. Three paramilitary police were also killed.
Burkina Faso has endured almost daily attacks, sometimes intertwined with community conflicts, since militants from neighboring Mali launched raids in 2015.
More than 1,300 people have died and at least a million people have abandoned their homes, according to estimates.
Whole swathes of the poor, landlocked Sahel nation have been deserted by the administration and security forces.
The idea of the VDP was launched in November 2019 by President Roch Marc Christian Kabore.
Two months later, the day after a major militant attack, the National Assembly unanimously passed a law providing for the recruitment of volunteers.
- Two weeks' training -
The auxiliaries are local recruits whose job is to shoulder low-level tasks from Burkina's poorly-equipped police and army.
The recruits receive an initial two weeks' training in small arms and basic military tactics.
Their prime job is surveillance, passing on information about the movements of suspected armed groups, and carrying out escort duties and patrols, said security expert Mahamadou Sawadogo.
In June, a parliamentary report put their number at "more than 2,000", although the figure today is likely to be much higher.
Mahamadi Youl, a 38-year-old VDP member, said the force's bases were "regularly" attacked.
He said he took steps to protect his family after he enlisted eight months ago.
"Our homes are also targeted, we receive death threats and some of our brothers have been kidnapped by terrorists," Youl told AFP.
A local VDP official in the northern province of Sanmatenga, said, "We go on patrols through the villages and on the main roads as well as dirt tracks.
"We sometimes fall into ambushes, and not having the same firepower as the terrorists or enough ammunition to hold out for hours, we sometimes lose men."
- 'Precious' help -
"The terrorist groups attack all the symbols of the state and the VDP are seen as such," Drissa Traore, an expert in geopolitics, told AFP.
Traore said the VDP, despite their little training and lack of fire power, posed a "serious problem" for the militants.
"With their perfect knowledge of settlements and paths, their help (to the army) is precious," he said.
The presence of the volunteers also hindered militants' efforts to seed the insurgency on local ground -- brothers or friends may end up on opposing sides.
Youl said he felt sad "to lose so many brothers", but insisted: "They did not die for nothing.
"The result is there. The people who fled their homes sometimes return under our escort. That is our satisfaction -- our victory."