CONAREF ban me from entering the Burkina Faso refugee camps

Before I take you on from Boni in Mali across 90kms of sahelian bush around about 16 Feb 2014, to Burkina Faso, Djibo and the Mentao refugee camp with Radwan after his return from Timbuktu, post arrest and liberation, to talk to the family 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

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.

But I suspected a more powerful source. 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, 10 days later, 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! 

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.

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.

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.

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 to see CONAREF.

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.

“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, it’s more secluded for the car”.

We rolled into Tity’s bar –  a little off the main drag out of town to take our sundowner. 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…” My pet subject, risk. I continued, pushing the boat out a bit: “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 search for the slightest reason to 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. 

“The plain fact is that 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 flee is that as nomads and with a history of persecution they are, so to speak, professionals! Furthermore, with nomadic genes 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 and, in its general sense, the desert. This spiritual attachment they can take with them, the physical is not so important, thus my Londoners of 1940 analogy does not really work on a number of levels. Firstly Londoners faced a threat from outside the country, the Tuareg faced a threat from within. Secondly, Londoners needed to stay in place to preserve their country, their culture and everything they knew and to flee would have put all this in jeopardy, for the Tuareg their country had in some ways already abandoned them and, with the AQMI occupation of the north and the ethnically targeted exactions after the liberation, the Tuareg had to flee to preserve their culture and community.

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 spiritually physical – it is of the desert – a liberty of the soul.  It does not so much matter where in the desert they are, just to be in the desert. 

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 alienation more than their 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 is thus perhaps inevitable that when one region becomes risky they will move to another that is not at the drop of a turban.(Sorry) It is only the complications of the modern world and the interests of states with physical borders that make them “exiles” or “refugees”. At heart, a nomad is at home wherever his family are, or wherever his animals are. Pewrahps this has something to do with why the Mentao camps don’t feel like your image of a refugee camp, because these people are professionals.

It was dark. Time to leave to go back to Mentao now as no one could recognise the car at night.

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 3 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 Fatimata, Mariam, Abdullah, Fatim, Sarid, Mullay, Oumar.

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?

All quiet on the Burkina Frontier as Presidential Election Day takes place in Mali. Where is everybody?

Election day went by with hardly a ripple in the Malian refugee camps in Burkina Faso, though the wind did pick up in the evening followed by a wall of sand and dust and a quick African storm.Apart from that, a lazy day was had by all.

The momentous democratic date in Mali’s history passed us by. Probably because no one seemed to care – either inside the camps or outside. No state functionary, no interim government minister, no UN monitors, no ECOWAS representative, no presidential candidate, no international or domestic journalists or media came in the lead up to the election nor indeed for the day itself.

No one seemed to know where they were to vote and nobody had their voting cards. Some had receipts which should deliver a card on polling day. At the Malian embassy in Ouagadougou a few days before the election the Ambassador was going through a few pages of electoral lists. He admitted the camps had all been mixed up and asked my friend to help identify those he knew and explain where they were.

One would have thought that camps of refugees would be the easiest place to hold a poll. All are already registered with UNHCR with their photocards that get them their 12kg of rice every month, all are in one place, all have nothing else to do. One would also have thought that a good poll in the camps would have been a good PR coup for the UN or ECOWAS or MISMA or the Mali state, a sign that unity was on the way, an olive branch to the displaced to say you count, to say your future is our future. The refugees vote is unlikely to swing the result, so what was there to lose? Not even Soumalia Cisse, the northern candidate most likely to challenge for the Presidency, who depends on the northern vote, came.

On the day, the polling station was 10kms from the Mentao camps in the nearby town of Djibo. So anyone who wanted to vote had to find 500cfa ($1) for their transport into town. Why could they not cast their vote on their temporary territory in the camps – it is more “Malian” than Djibo?

I went to the polling station at about midday on election day. There were 5 or 6 civilians sitting under trees, a pick-up full of 10 tooled up and armored Burkina policemen, two UNHCR vehicles with just drivers as far as I could see. I spoke to three people as they came out from trying to cast their vote. Between them they had about 15 receipts for voting cards. Not one had delivered a card. They were the few who wanted to vote, they returned to the camps without doing so.

I have heard that 50 Malians displaced in Burkina Faso managed to vote. On the national news on election night not a mention of the displaced persons or the refugees.

In the camp people fasted as it is Ramadan, women prepared the food, the children and the young and the men just idly fill their time, pushing back the boredom, wondering daily as they do what the future will bring.

Not many would have cast their vote anyway, “a waste of 500cfa” said Mamayiti. What would they be voting for? Who would they vote for? No one had come soliciting their votes, no presidential candidate had tried to address the “northern question” in any depth or with any seriousness in their campaigns.

All of course had mentioned the north, they had no choice: the northern question is the reason their country is in chaos after the biggest shock in their history since the arrival of the French colonial forces; the northern question is what led to ATT, the former President, granting Al Qaeda camping rights within Tuareg territory under the auspices of the USA and France which has produced the pretext for a new French invasion; here too was the domain of the drugs and contreband trade with its government and military backhanders.

All these things served to destroy the northern economy, its security and the fabric of its community which inevitably led to the rebellion that sparked the coup d’etat which permitted the subsequent “islamist” mafia invasion which knocked the Azawad independence claims off their perch.

It was this invasion that destroyed the Azawad independence claim of the rebels. Mali, Algeria, France and the US preferred Al Qaeda to occupy the north than some separatist rebels. With Al Qaeda in control, the western world can behave as it chooses.

Now most of the northern population of Mali is displaced. Furthermore it is since the supposed French “liberation” of the north  that the majority of refugees, especially here in Burkina, have left. The myth pedaled by all involved governments and parroted by their medias is that these refugees fled the rebels and the islamists, further compounding another myth that these are one and the same.

Nor should you believe the aid agencies who will claim they fled drought and food crisis too to top up their coffers. 

The reality is that they fled their own army, the Malian military. They fled the history of this army’s reaction to any rebellion at the outset of crisis in February 2012, a history every family remembers only too painfully and a history of which France is only too aware.

Then in April 2012 they fled after their military and police and gendarmes abandoned their posts and their towns and cities -Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal, Menaca, Hombori, Douentza – following the coup d’etat in March 2012, leaving the populations exposed to occupation by first the rebels and then followed swiftly by the mafia “islamist” forces coming in from the north.

But the biggest wave of flight came after the French liberation of their lands because it was this same Malian army – an army that was in such disarray in the lead up to the intervention that they were fighting each other in Bamako – that was then inexplicably left by the advancing French campaign to manage the peace. Given French awareness of the history of the Malian army’s response to the slightest rebellion, let alone a crisis that has ripped the country apart and brought it to its knees, this act, in my view, constitutes a war crime.

Let me just digress a bit here to state an important fact about the French liberation. I welcomed the French intervention as by January 2013 the Mali situation had been left by the international world to fester in inertia and something had to happen, but I also supported it because, as I have been saying since the crisis began, this whole thing – the drugs, the mafia, the islamists could have and should have been swept up and disposed of very easily by a highly sophisticated, desert trained French military, fresh from active service in Afghanistan and their training camps in Chad.

Moreover, north and south of the country were at last united in one thing – they were all glad of the help to rid the population’s number one enemy, the “islamist” forces. With these forces gone, Mali could begin to breathe again.

And then, just as with Afghanistan, they threw it all away.

At the point of French intervention all the “islamist” forces, none of them battle hardened as they’d never had to fight for any of their gains, were trapped south of the river Niger, out in the open with only one bridge crossing at Gao and a very slow ferry crossing at Timbuktu, both between 400 and 600 kms away. To get back to their stomping ground the islamists had to cross the river. The French had timed their intervention perfectly, this could be over in a month.

But, somehow, 2 days after the intervention began, the arch enemy, leader of the AQMI forces, Iyad Ag Ghali, the poison in the mix, the most detested man in both the northern and the southern populations, the Osama Bin Laden figure in the Mali crisis, was able, like Bin Laden had before him, to escape to the desert mountains and obscurity.

Iyad, as he is referred to locally, was able to drive the 600kms along the only tarred road, cross the bridge at Gao and disappear back another 500kms across flat and open desert to the north, to his fiefdom in Kidal in the same sort of time it would take a traveller in a hurry. Despite the drones, despite the French air force supposedly sweeping these forces up, despite the price on Iyad’s head, despite the very swift French troop deployment and despite all their intelligence networks that were already in place, France, like the US before them in Afganistan, had let their guy go.And now we hear very little about him.

This fact is never mentioned in reporting but spoken about all the time on the ground. Why has this not been pursued by the international media? So the French advanced to the north to the obscure mountains where war could be interminable, who could ever know what was happening there? And in the process they leave the Malian military behind in Timbuktu and Gao to manage the peace.

After the “liberation” of Mali, the re-occupying Malian army began “sweeping up the islamists”. This entailed being escorted by locally activated Songai militia (set up by the former President for exactly the occasion of a successful rebellion) who knew the region into market places and remote villages, abducting and killing, imprisoning and ransoming any light skinned person – and they were easily spotted as they were few and far between – mainly cattle herders and shepherds, those left behind to guard the animals. This obviously induced further terror in any clear skinned Malian left in the Gourma, Timbuktu and Gao regions of Mali encouraging them to flee and the refugees to remain in the camps. The result of this fear campaign plus the rushed forwards election is that there are very few Tuareg left now to vote in these regions.

Again, in Mali’s half century of history, the north has erupted, again the north/south fault line is at cause, again the northern population are the victims, again families find themselves repeating flight from their country. And yet no politician has the balls to talk about the north seriously, with equanimity, with concern, with truth.

No pressure from the outside world is brought to bear on Mali to finally resolve its northern question: oil is more important than people.

The truth is that children born as refugees in the early 90’s are now finding themselves refugees again in their early twenties, their lives as students, newly weds, wannabes all in tatters, their dreams a distant fog. Some of these students have parents who themselves will have been born displaced.

For all, the fault lies with the politicians and the state that has for decades failed to protect its Tuareg people. The question of the north is also why these old imperial forces are back on their ground now, with their new imperial intentions, though it is not to help the people that they have come but for the wealth that lies here. The US and France backed up doggedly as ever by the UK, are taking back control of Africa’s future. We are at the beginning of Africa’s re-colonization by western economies that need African resources to get them out of their economic mess. We have created the war and now, as with Iraq and Afghanistan, we will provide the security, bringing in new exploitation – sorry exploration – and “free market capitalism” so that West Africa can do a Latin America of the 70’s, a UK and Asia of the 80’s, a Russia of the 90’s, an Iraq and an Afghanistan of the 00’s.

And the enemy this time? The foe we are protecting ourselves from? Not Al Qaeda – that is a smoke screen, a phantom, it is not really there. No our real fear, here in Africa, this time is China. I’ll leave that one with you for another day!

So the US and France have insisted on this election now, before Mali has had a chance to breathe, to get itself together, have a conversation and debate its future. The purpose is for the old order to be put back in control, the old status quo that plied their “haram” trade before will allow the new forces to ply theirs now. The old European model of democracy bequeathed by France at independence will be re-instated with a majority (ah the democratic curse of the majority that allows a big people to shit on a little within the constitution!) “elected” president with whom we can at least all start doing business again.

It doesn’t matter to the outside world whether the restored democracy is good for Mali, whether it will resolve the north/south divide, whether it has legitimacy and whether it will bring prosperity and peace and equality and freedom to the people of Mali. What matters is that we have a man we can do business with, and in Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – or IBK as all refer to him in line with the tradition of acronyming their presidents’ names – who will win as he is the French choice, we will have that.

People in the camps are beyond hoping for anything from their future, beyond expecting the UN or the US or France or ECOWAS or the EU or the AU or the Mali state to help them as they face repeated cultural extinction, ethnic cleansing, exile or a return as guests in their own country, on their own land.

The majority of the refugees in Burkina Faso – as with those in Mauritania, Niger, Algeria – before this crisis would have counted themselves as Malian 100%. Very few would have wanted the rebellion, as few have ever wanted any of the rebellions, but none of them have been given any support from their country and now they don’t know who they are. They know they are Tamashek but they don’t know what nationality they are. My friend Randi, who spent her first 6 years as a refugee in the 90’s rebellion and is now a student absent from her studies in Bamako, told me “I want to be Malian, my life as a Malian now seems like a dream. Now Mali doesn’t want me. So who am I now?”

For me the biggest scoundrels of all – those who really have no excuse, those who should be protecting the rights of the weak, the poor, the dis-enfranchised and the exiled, those who should be looking to tell the world of the truth of the situation in Mali are the vast majority of the international journalists and media. Throughout 2012 they helped create the fog for war by their ignorance of the issues, their absence of interest and their acceptance of government propaganda from wherever it came.

This media is now contributing to the western agenda with their lily livered levels of enquiry. Throughout the crisis they have parroted US and French policy, they have said what they are expected to say, they have investigated nothing, turned over no stones, enquired nowhere beyond the remit of their fighting masters.

Point me to an article written by one of the embedded US ex-Peace Corps turned journalists or photographers who hang out in Bamako that tries to understand Mali from the northern perspective. Show me where the BBC or CNN or any other major media channel doesn’t use the same terminology as their government’s press briefings, that doesn’t make the same mis-leading mistakes, calling rebels “jihadists” and mafia “islamists”, labeling Mali as Afghanistan or Somalia before it is time, describing its past as “a shining example of democracy in the region”. Who, other then Jeremy Keenan (in his books The Dark Sahara and its sequel, The Dying Sahara – and on questions the western narrative?

Albert Einstein said: “”The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything”. The media has much to contemplate on this in reference to Mali.

I am on the ground, as I have been on the ground in Mali, north and south, in the desert and the sahel since 2008. I have seen the inner workings of this crisis at first hand, I have called upon journalists for years to look under the surface and report it to no avail. I am seeing evil done and I am seeing a world “watching and doing nothing”.

I did come to the camps with one good piece of news about a project I left the camps back in May to pursue. I have been seeking help for the refugees to return home which has led me to some well connected and intentioned people linked up with the Festival In The Desert. Together we are planning a caravan of return which has received strong but as yet unconfirmed support within the UN. International and domestic artists are hoped to join the caravan to bring in, hopefully, some international media. We have a provisional date of November, but we need to see how events progress after the election. I left the camps in early May promising to fight for this, hoping to stage it before the elections but this would have been too soon. But this poor election show in the camps was exactly why we wanted to make our stance before the end of July.

My news was generally received well, but I felt a new dimension has come into play, a new doubt, a new worry. As Mufta Ansar said to me: “The return is good, we all want to return. But what after? What about a year’s time, or two year’s time, or even ten year’s time. In the 90’s my family returned twice only to have to flee soon again after they returned. If it is a return to be dumped in the same impasse we were in before, if we are are going to be back here again, why bother returning now? We’d be better off starting afresh elsewhere”.

Mufta is an important man in the community – not just the Tuareg community, for he lives in an area where the Tuareg are a minority: over the past 10 years he had financed and built a school, a health centre, community farming projects, irrigation schemes without a penny coming from the state. Now all is lost, he must begin again. “I am a Malian patriot, I loved my country but I don’t know anymore. I am older now, I have my children to think about. I cannot work the next ten years of my life to have it all taken away again. And so far I see no sign that anyone is going to do anything to resolve the problem, and if they don’t all this horror will come back to haunt us again”.

Mufta sits back in the moonlight and repeats a charming concept he has pondered with me before: “where is the world’s humanity?”.

How quaint! Mufta thinks the UN and ECOWAS and the AU were set up to safeguard humanity. He thinks the US and the EU guide their foreign policy and their war on terror and their hunt for resources along humanitarian principles. He thinks those journalists, those cameras, the Peace Corps volunteers planted in every village and those signs of USAID all over the place are all about witnessing and helping humanity in its struggle against poverty and oppression!

How naive he is! How naive am I? How naive are we all?

Life as a refugee

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. They are more likely
to arrive in Toyota pick ups.

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).

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

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.

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 staying put.

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