Life as a refugee

Tea at sunset Djibo, Burkina Faso, Tuareg refugee camp


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Daily life as a refugee is not as bad as you might assume. At least
not here at MENTAO Central, Djibo Burkina Faso where I have come to
stay with my Tuareg friends.

Mali’s crisis does not follow the patterns of most of the continent’s
wars. The active combatants on the ground are predominantly foreigners
for a start when most wars in Africa are civil; most  refugees flee
warring forces seeking to control the government, these ones flee
their own national army, the defenders of the peace left behind by the
liberating French forces.

Here at MENTAO refugee camp near Djibo there are none of our expected images of refugee
poverty. There are no starving children, no one has fled battling
forces, not many have trekked miles to get here. 

Tuareg sisters enjoy being together again.

Indeed if you were just passing by and ignored the UNHCR signs on some
of the tents, or the OXFAM water tower, you may just think it was
another African village, albeit a rather large one, stretching off
into the bush.

Maybe this is why the media stay away, preferring to chase the shadow
of the crisis in Mali rather than the substance that is here, seeking
the image of the battling twin forces of foreign invitees, AQMI and
France, rather than the domestic crisis that sparked off all this

Of course the journalists seek the stories that interest the world at
large, the international war that this year is Mali’s turn to host.

It is outside Mali, in the camps of refugees in Mauritania, Algeria,
Niger and Burkina Faso, that the story of Mali’s domestic crisis, the
root cause and catalyst of the problems of the last year, is taking

Over the next few weeks I will be telling personal stories from the camps.

Who is in the camps?
The camps here, as those in the other countries, are predominantly
filled with the Tamasheq (the correct term for Tuareg which includes
the black “Bella” Tamasheq speakers).

Tamasheq elders await a meeting with the MNLA delegation

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In MENTAO, Djibo they are 85% Tamashek, 15 % Arab. Here in Burkina
Faso they receive refugees from Timbuktu, the region east of Timbuktu
to Gao and south of the river Niger to the Burkina border. Also any
Tuareg who were in Bamako at the beginning of the crisis – students,
state functionaries, policemen, gendarmes, teachers etc – came here.

The reason for the lack of squalor here is not that UNHCR are
providing a lux camp. This is the refuge of the well to do, of those
who had the means to escape. Great families from Timbuktu who can
trace their lineage back to the Prophet, wealthy business people,
travel operators, teachers, lawyers, merchants, nomads, students,
school girls and boys. All have left all they have behind – jobs,
projects, homes, businesses, careers, studies, animals. No one who had
the means in their family to leave Malian soil has stayed.

Journalists returning from Timbuktu and Gao report that there are no
fair skins around. Many left right at the beginning of the crisis. The
first big wave was in late January and February 2012. The MNLA
rebellion had started, and the Tamasheq, remembering the consequences
of previous rebellions, began to leave, quickly, fleeing the
inevitable retribution against the northern population by the Malian
military that always follows rebellions.

The second smaller wave was around the time of the coup d’etat and the
islamist usurping of the MNLA advance to take Azawad in April 2012.
They weren’t fleeing the occupying islamist forces or the potential of
battles between the MNLA and AQMI, but the possibility of
international intervention now that AQMI were in control.

The recent big wave came with the French intervention, but this time
it was more the liberation than the intervention that caused the
exodus. It is the Malian military they flee who inexplicably have no
supervising UN, French or ECOWAS force with them. A military who are
very much one of the causes of the crisis, with no effective authority
controlling them and a history of atrocities against the northern
population, are left behind by the French army to manage the peace in
the very territory the same military abandoned without a fight,
leaving the population to their fate back in March 2012.

Here in Burkina at least they are safe, and here the Tamasheq,
normally spread out over vast distances, are all together again. I say
again, because this has become a regular thing. Every generation it
seems spends time as a refugee. There are students here who spent
their first 6 years in refugee camps during the rebellion of the

Maloud and Malouma
Although there are many people here and the camps are about 5km x 2km,
there is space, there is air, it is really just like being in one
large village. People have built homes much like they may have at
home. Grass matting, blankets and UNHCR plastic cover a frame of
sticks. Most families have a UNHCR tent complemented by their home
made shelters, some extending to large family compounds.

The women organise the children and the kitchen, the kids learn to
keep house and run errands, the young watch videos on their computers
or listen to music on their phones and the men – well there’s not much
of a living to be earned so they busy themselves with gathering news
from home, meeting and greeting and pondering their calamitous

Behind the daily procedures and the normal communal harmony, there is
a far off look in adult’s eyes. The future is very unclear, this
crisis feels more serious than others, and people who once were very
pro Malian and wanted nothing of these rebellions, now wonder how they
can ever call themselves Malian at all. “The very word, Mali, fills me
with fear now” says Randiwt Ansar, a student from Bamako who has had
to inscribe in a university in Burkina.

For me it is a pleasure to be here. I relax in the camp, visit
friends, take in their stories and discuss the situation. Wherever I
go I am warmly greeted, welcomed into tents or onto mattresses in the
shade to discuss, we have many teas, I am fed and accommodated and
watered – it is just like being in the desert.

Our camp

Just as in their homeland, so here we are in an homogenous world:
there are only Tamashek around. This gives the camps a strong sense of

We all miss their desert with its vast openness, its fresh winds, the
cool of the night and the early morning, the oases, the pools of azure
blue water in granite hills, their wells, their animals, their music,
their parties, the freedom of roaming in the great Sahara – all this
is another life away.

Here in the Sahel they are in sparse bush, the temperatures are
greater, the air less fresh, the nights getting stickier as the dry
season heats up towards the rains in June. Occasionally there are
mosquitos, and when the rains come they will be plenty and this they
are not used to.

If they were their animals the change in climate would have killed
them off by now – even the camel cannot cope with too much variation
of climate and forage.

People complain mainly of the interruption to their lives, of being
tired, wanting their lives back. On the plus side, whole families and
communities are catching up with each other, students have all their
old school friends about, large extended families are re-uniting and
everywhere we go we spot old friends.

The future is very uncertain and it is not an exaggeration to say they
are a people fearing worse to come, wondering when, and for some if,
they might go home. One thing is for certain, they can be asked to
return by their government, by France, by the UN and ECOWAS, but until
they feel safe from their national military, they will be staying put.

For now we are safe and doing fine in Burkina, if only it wasn’t so hot!

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