CONAREF ban me from entering the Burkina Faso refugee camps

Fatimata's compound, Boni Mali

The Doctor and Betsy at Fatimata’s compound, Boni Mali

Feb 2014

Before I take you on from Boni in Mali across 90kms of sahelian bush to Burkina Faso, Djibo and the Mentao refugee camp with Radwan to talk to the family  post arrest and liberation, about returning back again with him to Timbuktu and their land of Ewett, let me remind you of the context that I was aware might greet me in Burkina Faso. 


A week to 10 days previously, when I was en route to the refugee camps for the first time from Bamako, I had been alerted by an incident that happened to Hannah, a tourist client of mine, that I might run into problems at the Mentao refugee camp with the Burkina police and CONAREF, the Burkina Faso authority in charge of the refugee camps.


Hannah had been in Burkina and the camps with guides and friends of mine for about a week. During this time the Festival in the Desert came to town with their Caravan of Peace and she was now awaiting my arrival as she wanted to join the return of Radwan as she worked with refugees in Canada.


Hannah had called me as I was en route for the camp to say the Burkina police had taken her passport away and were accusing her of working with me to repatriate the refugees – crime of crimes! I assumed this was prompted by CONAREF. 


Oddly the police “knew all about” my project and had been following the movements of my Landcruiser “the doctor” that Hannah was using. Given I had not been to the camps for four months how did they know that the car was mine? Someone will have had to have pointed out that the vehicle Hannah was using was mine. The police for some reason thought I was already in the camps  – why would the police on their own suspect this? They reported that “I had no right” to take any refugees home. Again, this is not the Burkina police’s domain, it is CONAREF’s.


Hannah and Mohammed were ordered to leave Burkina without returning to the camp and without taking anybody else with them. So they left for Boni, 90 kms north of Djibo in Mali, and we arranged to meet there.


 Hannah and Mohammed

Hannah and Mohammmed in Fatimata’s camp, Boni Mali


This had to have come from CONAREF, but where had the tip off to them come from? 

I had been aware that the rumour mill had been working overtime in the camps about a white man coming to take everyone home and I knew that there were certain interests inside and outside the camps who didn’t want me to succeed with my Radwan plan for their own self interest. Anyone profiting personally or politically from the refugees was against any return. People and families with a position of responsibility in the camps, perhaps getting paid, have an interest in the refugees remaining as back in their real world they have no position. CONAREF themselves will be without purpose once the refugees go home, the UN funds will stop, all the benefits of hosting refugees will disappear.


CONAREF had very specific information on me that had to have come from someone who knew my program well and had a personal interest for me not to succeed. Many other groups of refugees had already returned. This was not about CONAREF or the police not wanting individual families of refugees returning, it was about not wanting me to succeed with my own project.


Now, around 16 Feb 2014, we were back in Boni, 60 kms from the Burkina border and 90 kms from the camp, freed from the gendarmerie and about to take Radwan and Ishmael back to Djibo and the Mentao camp to address the family.


 I decided to go to Djibo with Radwan to test the temperature there for myself. We’d go  in “the doctor”  leaving Betsy behind so as not to make too much of an entrance first time round – Betsy pulls focus you know! Then if the family were agreeable to the return, once Radwan had rested sufficiently, we’d bring Betsy down from Boni so we could do a snatch and run job! 

 Radwan resting Radwan at Fatimata's camp, Boni

Radwan rests up in Boni before the journey back to see the family in the refugee camp


Mohammed, Radwan, Ishamael, Hannah and I left Fatimata’s camp in Boni and set off in the doctor, leaving the strange mountain outcrops of Mali’s own ‘Monument Valley’ behind us to cross the flat Sahelian bush. No tarmac roads here, just track. So many pistes, always take the most used and the middle one, and keep heading south. In 5 hours we hit Djibo, Burkina Faso.

 en route to Djibo


We stopped at the gendarmerie in town to register our arrival. No one seemed to recognise or register us. I asked our friendly gendarme if I was ok to take Radwan back to the camp or did I need to register first with CONAREF? No I was told, as I had informed them, and “you are staying in Djibo aren’t you?” 


“Of course” 


Our gendarme was smiley and genial, he was happy that I’d paid the gendarmerie the respect of registering with them first, and he excused me registering with CONAREF as he could see the old man would be tired, I could pass by them in the morning. He looked out of the doorway to see Radwan being helped out of the car. “What is he doing?” 


I walked over to the car. Hannah told me Radwan wanted to speak to the gendarmes. What? We don’t want to speak to ANYONE if we don’t have to. We just need to get to the camp as quietly as possible. Radwan was now doing his usual distinctive gait: after 10 meters of stumbling forwards with his stick he sits in a heap on the ground wherever he is to recover before hauling himself back up and plodding on. Now he was right in front of the doorway to the gendarmerie sitting on the stony ground shouting in Tamashek something about an identity card.


We explained to Radwan that he didn’t need an identity card here, he had his refugee “attestation”.

Radwan barked out that he was no refugee, he wanted a Malian ID card, he was going HOME!

My friendly gendarme told me this wasn’t on. The gendarme couldn’t have an old man sat like this in front of the gendarmerie discussing identity cards. It was to us, young men, to do the work, the old man must be at ease in the car. If he needs something we can go to him. I explained that he had done this of his own will, that he had gone a bit funny and we agreed he should return to the car. 

A far cry from the gendarmes that greeted Radwan at Timbuktu I thought.


We all helped Radwan back to the car and set off for the camp.


 radian is welcomed back to his family in Meantao Refugee camp, Djibo, Burkina Faso


Back at camp the family were, of course, delighted to see Radwan and Ishmael and greeted me warmly. Radwan’s ordeal in Timbuktu was probably worse for them here than it was for us. The talk talk in the camps will have wound them up to a frenzy, and I’m sure at moments they had doubted me.


We had milk – Nedo powdered milk sadly, not the fresh cow’s milk of Ewett –  and later tea, while people came by to greet Radwan.


Radwan's daughter, Naitou


I was a bit restless, worried about the car being visible at Radwan’s camp in broad daylight. If CONAREF got wind they’d ignore what the gendarmerie told me and use this as all they needed to give me a problem. With all these people coming and going greeting Radwan I decided to go back to Djibo and see CONAREF. When it was dark I could return to the camp and no one would know.

So I made my excuses and Mohammed and I went back to Djibo.


In the CONAREF office only two lowly staff were on and they seemed unmoved and ready to shut up for the night. This was good. Perhaps they weren’t aware of my name and I could get away with registering my arrival without seeing the boss, Toué, who I knew to be difficult at best. They each looked at my passport, took down my details. They asked what I was doing. I told them I was here with a tourist client. That I had brought back an old chief who had been to Timbuktu and I had dropped him off at Mentao camp.


They quizzed me a bit about where I had met up with Radwan but I was able to claim, almost truthfully, that I had just bumped into him in Boni and he had asked for me to take him to Timbuktu.

Suddenly a little prickle. “Why hadn’t I sought their authority to take him back to the camp today?” I explained what the gendarmerie had said. They winced as though I’d stepped on their toes.


“Where was I staying?”


With friends in Djibo town (experience had taught this was the correct, if false, answer).

They had nothing.

I was to come by in the morning.

Outside Mohammed was waiting for me. 

“Let’s go to that bar of ours and wait for nightfall”, I said.

“I know a better one” said the Muslim to the bishop, “it’s more secluded for the car”.


We rolled a little off the main drag out of town to take our sundowner at a  Tony – my alcoholic Tuareg friend – was inevitably there. Word of Radwan’s arrest had of course buzzed around the refugee camp.


“Guy, how can we go back when even old Radwan gets arrested.”


“That’s exactly how the people who do these things want you to react.”


“But we have no choice. There’s clearly still insecurity.”


“ At root, what happened to Radwan wasn’t about insecurity, it was about money. It’s authorities profiting from the situation. This is the Mali of old that you know very well and it’s back in control and it will ever be thus under a corrupt system. “The thing to remember about what happened to Radwan and Ishmael is that they were reasonably quickly released. This shows that yes they can arrest you for nothing, and they will, but if you are innocent, if they have nothing on you, if you haven’t held arms, if there’s no proof there’s nothing they can do.” 


“It’s a risk”


“Yes of course but…” The subject that plagues me wherever I go, risk and fear.


I continued. “I don’t understand you guys sometimes. You take a huge risk in leaving your country in the first place. You put everything you have at risk: your education, your homes, your animals, your jobs… everything, to leave. I understand, you fear for your lives so these risks seem worth taking. But now to go home you expect it all to be made up for you like a bed of roses. The risk to your lives has gone, but you tell yourselves that risk is still there . Meanwhile the risks you take towards the things that make your life your own – your home, your education, your jobs, your community – are huge and increasing all the time. 


“Remember the UN, ECOWAS, the African Union etc are not primarily concerned with you, they are there to help the state, they are unions of nations not peoples. At some point, whether it’s now or a year or ten year’s time you are going to have to go home, and this will involve a risk whether the UN take you back or you go yourselves. But the longer you leave it the more you are going to lose, in my mind. Can you afford to leave this decision to Mali or these institutions who do not have your best interests as their primary concern? It is time for you, the refugees, to forget politics, forget the MNLA, forget the history and do what everyone else in this crisis is doing: act in your self interest.”


I was being tough on Tony but he needed it. I knew Tony really wanted to go back, but I also knew he was the sort of person who will talk talk talk about returning but never will until he is led back by his hand. In Tony I saw the whole Tuareg dilemma. The security of the camp had institutionalised the refugees and the big wide world seemed a scary place.


On my journey over here from the UK, with all the time I had to think about the refugees, I had felt a rising frustration. I was frustrated with the terrible communal survival instinct of a people who throw everything away through fear. I know it is the history, what has gone before, that creates the panic, but for everyone to throw everything away for the fear of being in the few that get into trouble seems, on the community survival level, to be a disproportionate sacrifice to the risk. 


I found myself imagining London in 1940 and the consequences for Europe and the world if Londoners had abandoned their city, as Hitler wished, and fled the blitz. Even when the exactions by the Malian military against the Tuareg population were occurring in the 6 months after the French liberation the Tuareg would have been better off staying put despite the history of atrocities against them and despite the exactions that certainly did take place. Would more have died or been taken prisoner if the community had stayed? Unlikely and possibly less. It was easy for the Malian military to enter a village market, escorted by local militia and pull aside the three Tuareg in the market knowing no one else will mention anything as they disappear off in the pick up. But if there were 100 Tuareg in the market place it would not be so easy, the bully boys would not feel so strong and if anything did happen there would be witnesses to testify. They couldn’t round up quietly 100 people.


One reason of course that it is easy for the Tuareg to uproot and leave all behind is that as nomads it is in their blood. The Tuareg are a people who are attached to place spiritually though not materially. In the desert it is not the specific place or town or village or house or even tent that they refer to as home.  Home is their family, their community, their animals IN the desert.  Take any one of these away and a Tuareg is in exile. Thus a Tamasheq family living in Bamako under normal conditions of peace are spritually in exile as they are outside the desert. 


Ironically the Tuareg, in their nomadic disrespect for borders that sees the entire desert as their boundless home, consider themselves the freest of all people even from the restrictions of a refugee camp. Their freedom is of the desert but in a spiritual rather than physical sense, theirs is a liberty of the soul. 


One of the biggest complaints I came across in the camps was that they were not in their “climate” or “environment”. No one remarked that they missed Timbuktu, or their village, or their house. Their discomfort was primarily the different heat and the humid air, they were troubled by their environmental alienation more than their political exile. A nomad’s strength and resilience is thus also, in a world of borders and nations and private property, their Achilles heal: they are, at the same time, both always and never in “exile”.


It was dark and I was hungry, having just realised I hadn’t eaten all day. Time to leave to go back to Mentao now as no one could recognise the car at night. Time to return the other Fatimata – my base in the Mentao camps.

 Fatimata Fatim and SaridMariam and Fatimata's other children

Fatimata and her children, Mentao refugee camp


At Fatimata’s I feel at home. I have a few “homes” on my travel routes and with friends in Mali, but nowhere do I feel quite so at ease and looked after than with Fatimata. I have known her and her 7 children for about 4 years and since coming to the camps it has always been here that I feel most relaxed, inconspicuous, myself. And she makes a mean mango, tomato and onion salad, apropriately named Fatimata’s Salad. Sorry CONAREF I couldn’t come to Djibo and the camps without saying hi to my familes and friends.


Mohammed and I had a lovely evening eating, chatting, having tea, catching up on my “haj” as Fatimata calls my caravan idea. “No No No”!! She is not ready to go back to Timbuktu. Her two eldest daughters, Mariam and Fadi have work with one of the NGOs so they bring in between them a reasonable living of about €150 per month. If she was to return there is nothing for them at Timbuktu so they’d be much worse off. Another catch 22 that confronts the refugees.

Lying out that night under the intense night sky, a flimsy mattress and a sheet all I need as comfort from the elements, I pondered over the irony of my situation. At home and at ease though clandestine in a refugee camp. Here solely to help a family go home at my own expense and in the process creating huge suspicion both from refugees and the authorities supposedly there to look after their best interests.


I am happy here, and so are many of the refugees, especially the young, and this is part of the problem. For many it is like being at a permanent holiday camp. All your friends and cousins and brothers and sisters are nearby, families normally spread across a nation are all here together in a space 6kms x 1km. Back in July I took Fatimata’s eldest daughter, Mariam, back to Bamako to inscribe herself back at the university after a two year break for the coming months when she was expecting to return. After 3 days in Bamako Mariam was itching to get back to the camp, not because there were problems in Bamako but because she missed her friends, her family, her life there and the big wide open real world of the city she had fled was now strange and probably a bit daunting.


Politically this is a problem for the refugees too. Cocooned in their camps from the reality of Mali, abandoned by the outside world and forgotten by their country, their ideas of solutions to their situation tend towards fantasy. When I first arrived in the camps in I heard two ideas for their return: either when an independent Azawad was created, to which I replied then you’ll be here for many decades, or when the French military leave the MNLA (who most support now, though before the crisis their support would have been negligible) would go back to war against Mali, to which I replied that they’d be waiting at least ten years, perhaps more, as the French have not entered Mali to leave so soon that is for sure. Just like the British and US in Afghanistan, once in it’ll take a lot of peace to remove them!


In the morning I visited some friends quickly, dropped in at Radwan’s camp and then took Ishmael into Djibo to see UNHCR and CONAREF about returning the family.


UNHCR informed us that we had to go by CONAREF first, they being the higher authority. Really, what nonsense: a Burkina Faso government department, whose only raison d’etre is hosting refugees, has overall authority over refugees returning? Just another example of how the UN is set up so that it can only represent the interests of nations and not people.


We went onto CONAREF. Same two guys in the office. Ishmael began to explain that we had come to find out what procedures he needed to follow for the family to leave the camp. He explained that I was a friend and I was going to take them home. Immediately the atmosphere stiffened The questions followed:


“Why hadn’t I mentioned this last night, I said I was here for tourism?”


“I am. I am with a client. But she is leaving from Ouagadougou. Once she has left I am going to take my friend back to Mali, as it’s on my way!”


Side kick got up and left the room.


Abas to Ishmael:

“What about security back in Mali? How would they get by? There is no assistance”.


Hmm. So CONAREF are aware that the UN are still not handing out assistance in Timbuktu! Even the UN pretend that they are. 


Sidekick comes back into the room and hands me a phone:


“Toué, our boss, he wants to speak to you”.


“Good morning Mr Toué.


“Good morning, how are you?”


“Fine thank you. And you?”


“Fine thank you. You are banned from entering the camps”.




“You are banned from entering Mentao camp under any circumstances and if you want to take any refugees away you will need an order of mission from your embassy and will have to come to the office in Ouagadougou”.


He was practically screaming at me. No need to explain my mission, he clearly knew, or thought he knew, all about it and I clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere so I handed the phone back to side-kick as Toué continued his rant. 


I left the office determined CONAREF were not going to keep the upper hand. Ismael was with me, I had to take him back to the camp. Perhaps it was time to test this ban, and to test the resolve of CONAREF.


We returned to Mentao and explained what happened to the family. A discussion broke out about the refugees’ prisoner status. Radwan insisted I stayed for meat but I didn’t think I could. My deliberation was decided for me when Mohammed indicated that the vehicle sounds I could hear outside the tent were the police.


A couple of CONAREF guys ducked into the tent. Minutes later and Hannah, Mohammed and I were escorted to the police post within the camp.


Was it coincidence that as we arrived at the post Haima, the refugee head of site for Mentao north, who knew me well and was connected to a large and influential family that I suspected were behind  much of briefing against me, rolled in on his motorbike?


At the post, a large camouflaged net/tent/shelter, our passport details were taken. Police officers came and went, as did CONAREF representatives. Haima, friendly and in good humour, told me to go and see him when I was finished with the police.


After about an hour the pleasant police, having asked no questions, seemed to be wrapping up with our passports. I asked if I could take them back to be told that no they were going to the police commissariat in Djibo. No explanation given as to why we had to go there having been here. If they, like CONAREF, wanted to ban me from the camp then they could do that from here. Perhaps it was just all obstruction and time wasting.


So we were escorted to the Commissariat in Djibo town. Waited about an hour with our CONAREF friends in tow, eventually we were to be seen by the commissar. CONAREF accompanied us into his office.


He began directly with me. How often had I been to Burkina Faso? Often. How many times? Oh four or five times. “But Mr Guy there is no trace of these visits in your passport. No Visa, no entry stamps, no exit stamps”. 


“Oh Sorry. That is my new passport, my Burkina stamps and visa are in my old passport.”


 I got up and went out to the doctor and got my other passport from my bag.


As I walked back in holding another passport my CONAREF minder looked less assured. I handed the passport to the commissar, who flicked through, nodded and deciphered and handed my passport back to me.


“Well I see indeed you have been in Burkina and you have the stamps. You are welcome. As far as the camps are concerned that is CONAREF’s business, as for us at Djibo we have no problem. In future you must come and register with us.”


Walking back to the car after paying the police $2 each for the pleasure of stamping our passports I decided to settle for the day’s 1-1 draw. 


Bugger CONAREF. Same as yesterday, hang out till dark and then back to Fatimata’s, MENTAO sud. Home in prison. A stowaway in a refugee camp! What had become of me?

GLankester-2013-08-08-8717Mariam and me