Why am I doing this and why should you care?

10 Dec 2013, Rabat Morocco

Now I have broken the barrier and am finally in Africa proper I can see the journey ahead and turn my attention again to its purpose: the refugees in Burkina Faso, Radwan and his family, my friends and the people I have grown to know this year.

Why should you care if I get across the Sahara, through Mauritania, into Mali with an old truck so I can help some friends? A hundred or so people I can hope to help – it’s a drop in the ocean! There are 50,000 in Burkina Faso alone. What impact can this possibly have in the greater scheme of things in Mali?

And why should it concern you anyway that some obscure dispossessed people go home? Hey shit happens, the world is a complicated place and this is Africa after all!

For me it’s not just the humanitarian principle of a state and an international politics that denies and ignores a cultural catastrophe that is happening to the Tuareg, some of the world’s last real nomads, whose ancestry recedes and branches back from the guardians of the Sahara to the Berber and the Atlas mountains of Morocco, the Moors of the Alhambra in Spain, protectors of the Prophet Mohammed in Arabia, to the shores and the sails of Phoenicia and perhaps, some say, on backwards to the centre of western tradition, the family of Israel. Are they the lost tribe of Israel? If they were this would explain the world’s blindness and deafness: it’s in our DNA!

Radwan Ag Ayouba, a refugee for the first time in his long life Zeina washing Hassan and Hussein

More photos: http://africa-photography.photoshelter.com 

war to wage on wherever it finds its strategic interests lie, that has driven the Tuareg to this catastrophe. Radwan Ag Ayouba’s story is testimony to this: in his 90 or so years he has weathered every Saharan storm thrown at him from drought to sword war fare to rebellions. He weathered this crisis – the rebellion, the coup d’etat, the MNLA take over of Timbuktu, the Al Qaeda occupation right up to the French “liberatation” and then he fled Timbuktu and Mali for the first time in his life, leaving all his livestock behind. The international world, represented by the French military, the UN agencies and 12,000 peacekeeping troops have been present on the ground in Mali for the duration of Radwan’s exile. During the past 6 months he has watched peace return to his country, a president elected, recent legislative elections done and dusted with no incident, tourists coming back and yet he is withering away in exile aong with most of the Malian population of his colour.

If Mali was in Europe, if it was say Yugoslavia, you’d know what was happening, but the only time you hear about Mali is when something happens in Timbuktu. Moreover, in the coming years, military chiefs would be hauled up before the Hague. No one will face justice for the campaign against the Tuareg, that’s for sure: no one has ever been put before a court for any atrocities committed against the Tuareg, and they have come after every rebellion, the camps are full of the testimonies.

I hear, though I cannot confirm, that the 2012-13 exodus from Mali is the greatest migration of people from the Sahara region ever. How often have you seen images of the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Mauritania, or Niger on TV? Often enough to justify one of the biggest ever migrations of people in Africa? And what do you know about what drove them to migrate? Have you heard the term “ethnic cleansing” or a ‘colour war” applied to the Mali crisis? If not, why not when 95% of the refugees are light skinned Tamashek, aka “Tuareg”?

Before this journey, over the past 6 months, I have tried every angle I could to seek support for helping the refugees begin returning. The conditions are there for it to be possible, but they are stuck in political limbo. The UN will only help them back once Mali signs off that it is ready to take them back.

Meanwhile all the people of the north – Songai, Arab, Peul – are suffering. Those who are in, say, Timbuktu, suffer because without half the population the economy cannot get going, many displaced people within Mali (225,000 according to UNHCR) wont return because nothing is happening, and the refugees don’t go back because they have no means and they are not sure what humanitarian set up awaits them because they get no information.

The UN will only support the refugees to go home once the Mali government has signed off an accord with the UN to say it is ready and prepared to have the refugees home. Why isn’t it ready now? There are 12,000 UN peacekeeping troops on the ground, with the French in force as well, all the UN and NGO agencies needed to reconstruct, development money waiting to come in: the country has never been safer. They have an elected president and have had two country wide elections. Peace is back and yet the refugees can’t go home.

The refugees are on their knees, many have been out of Mali for 2 years, all have had to support themselves with anything they want other than 12 kilograms of rice a month which is all they receive from the UN. Their resources have depleted, their animals stocks are again decimated or totally lost, their lives have been turned upside down, their children have missed out on education, students’ degrees are on hold, lives are all in limbo while the government and international institutions that should be looking after them continue to play the politics which got these people into this mess in the first place.

This journey aims to be a spark to bring this issue to light.