Caught between the hammer and the anvil is a good way to describe how Malian refugees feel two years after the Tuareg rebellion was hijacked by extremist groups and the country descended into civil war. The destruction of centuries-old scrolls and ancient shrines in the historic city of Timbuktu were among the first casualties of war, provoking international outcry. Scores of people fled the North into other parts of the country or across borders.
Many of them ended up in camps in neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso which vary in size, the number of refugees and aspect. However, what they do have in common is the scorching heat, the sudden sand blizzards, and the plight of their inhabitants. The Mauritanian camp of Mbera is home to some 60 000 refugees. It is compact and surrounded by a trench to protect against possible intruders. In Burkina Faso, the largest refugee camp there, Mentao, counts 13 000 inhabitants; its tents are spread out as is the custom among communities with a semi-nomadic lifestyle.
“I’d like to go home to Timbuktu, but I don’t have the means. Maybe I could return with the neighbour who helped me get here, but he wants there to be total security first,” says Yana Walet Abacha, a Songhai mother-of-five who has been in Mbera since January 2013. Helped by someone who can write, she has since sent five letters to her husband who stayed behind.
She has never received a reply. The only news she has of him and the situation back home is the little she finds out from people with phones or those moving back and forth between Mali and the camp. Unable to pay for extra food to complement the food rations, she tries her best to feed her children three times a day. She grows some vegetables in one of the communal gardens. The water comes from wells dug more than 100 meters deep, which was made possible thanks to European Commission funding.
As she plies open a small tin of tomato paste with a blunt knife, she concedes, having lost all appetite. Yana is one of the many women in the camp who try to get by while their life is on hold.
The Tuareg refugees, regardless of the camp they live in, are more eloquent in summing up all that’s wrong with today’s situation. “The rations are too small, we don’t get any meat or milk which is what we’re used to, and there aren’t enough medicines,” an elder in Mentao camp laments. “We’d return if we could, but security back home is not guaranteed. They continue to hunt for certain skin colours. Some people do go back, but that’s because of the conditions here, not because it’s safe to return,” he snaps.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) acknowledges that the conditions in Mali are still not conducive for repatriation. Despite the progress towards rule of law in Mali and plans for accelerated development of the North, the region with breakaway ambitions still counts many no-go areas. Conditions for returning refugees are near to impossible to monitor there.
“We won’t hold refugees back, but we think it’s important to inform them about the situation in their home regions. We will facilitate returns with a small sum [equivalent to €53] for transport and other costs, on condition that refugees take an informed decision and sign the voluntary repatriation form,” says Angèle Djohossou, UNHCR’s deputy Representative in Burkina Faso.
That all is not well in northern Mali is not surprising, and it is not aided by the fact that negotiations seem to have stalled. Following the clashes between the Malian army and armed groups in the town of Kidal in mid-May 2014, the drums of war are rumbling again. In addition to the suicide-attacks, the kidnappings and inter-communal clashes that make the headlines, many incidents go unreported.
One leader acknowledges that in his region of origin, Goundam, things seem relatively calm for now, but that one ‘spark’ is sufficient to bring things ‘back to zero’. Another one talks of ‘arbitrary arrests’ and of people who, after having left the camp, returned because they felt unsafe in Mali. “The same chaos that has chased us continues today. This camp will not move as long as there is no agreement between the different parties. We want lasting peace,” says Assideye Ag Mohamed Elmoctar.
As abandoned as they may feel by an international community that has turned its attention to other crises, they cherish the safety they enjoy in the camps. Having been refugees in this region before, during the “first flight” in 1991, this camp is a second home to some of the older Tuareg refugees.
While security is their number one concern, the prospect of returning ‘to square one’, having lost most of their animals and often their houses, is equally daunting. Mali’s UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reports that a majority of displaced people who return to the North find their property and houses looted, destroyed or occupied by others. And whatever progress there has been in restoring basic services such as health care, water supply and education, many civil servants have yet to return and a severe food crisis is looming once again.
The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) is still the major contributor to humanitarian aid in Mali, but needs are substantial and access to affected populations in the North remains problematic. Several northern regions have already entered an emergency phase, long before the next harvest.
The crisis is expected to last beyond the harvest season as trade and agriculture have been severely disrupted by the conflict. The refugee camps, for their part, are set in regions of the Sahel with near-permanent food insecurity. Safety, food and livelihoods make up the push and pull of refugees’ daily deliberations. But whether back home or in the camps, aid dependency seems to be their unenviable lot for the next months, if not years to come.
Regional Information Officer for West Africa
EU Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection (ECHO)
Find more stories from the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO).