Optimism drives two-time Tuareg refugee | Globalization | DW | 03.04.2013
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Globalization

Optimism drives two-time Tuareg refugee

Abdoullah Ag Mohammed was a university student before the crisis began in Mali. Now, he's living as a refugee for the second time, trying to make the best of the challenging situation of being unable to go home.

A bus rattles down a bumpy highway in northern Burkina Faso, leaving clouds of dust trailing behind. Inside, Abdoullah Ag Mohammed sits with a backpack on his lap looking at the parched landscape out the window. He is travelling to the place he now calls home: Mentao Refugee Camp.

Ag Mohammed is 28 years old and has been living at the refugee camp for more than a year. Before that, he lived in Bamako, Mali's capital city. He liked it there. He had a normal city life: going to university, spending time with friends, working. Once a year he would sell T-shirts at the famous Festival in the Desert in Timbuktu.

But then things started going bad.

"When I'd go on the street, I'd hear people say 'There is a rebel,'" says Ag Mohammed. "They'd tell us on the radio, 'We have rebels among us. We have to kill you rebels, and we will kill you one by one. You are like the others who are in the north part [of Mali]. You are the same.'"

Fearing for his life, Ag Mohammed left university to join his mother, sister and young niece and nephew in the refugee camp.

Like most of the 12,000 people in this camp, Ag Mohammed belongs to an ethnic group in Mali called the Tuaregs.

Crowds of people stand outside waiting to be registered

New arrivals to Mentao Refugee Camp wait to be registered by the UN refugee agency


It was the Tuareg political and militant organization - the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (NMLA) - that initiated a takeover of the entire north of Mali in January 2012. This was just one in a series of rebellions for independence fought over the past hundred years. This time, control of northern Mali was taken from the Tuaregs by Islamist militant groups. They're still fighting the Malian army, which is being supported by soldiers from other African countries, as well as the former colonial power, France.

Many Malians blame Tuaregs for the crisis the country is now in. This has resulted in discrimination - and sometimes in violent reprisals.

A Tuareg 'Candide?'

When Ag Mohammed fled, he had to pack light, taking only what was most important to him.

"I brought only my books and my clothes. This is all I brought from Bamako," he says.

His favorite book is "Candide," Voltaire's satire about a young man who comes from a life of comfort, but is forced to leave it behind, and undergoes increasingly unpleasant misfortunes.

"I think that 'Candide' has everything, but he lost everything also," says Ag Mohammed. "He has the opportunity to get what he likes, but at the end, he loses it."

When speaking about the challenges he has faced, Ag Mohammed always seems to take a positive approach. But he laughs when asked if he thinks of himself as being like Voltaire's optimist.

"I think that we are now facing problems. We have to be patient in order to support all the things we have now. I think we have to wait and the problem will be solved one day. I take this lesson from the story of 'Candide.'"

Finding peace

Ag Mohammed's family lives in a white plastic tent, stamped with the blue logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, like the thousands of others scattered into the distance of Mentao Refugee Camp. Out here the temperature is 41 degrees Celsius (106 Fahrenheit) at midday. It only cools down when the occasional sandstorm blows through.

"In Mentao, life is good because I live peacefully. If I live peacefully, that is good," he says.

Abdoullah Ag Mohammed helps an older man in a tent

Abdoullah Ag Mohammed (right) helps other refugees with camp administration


Ag Mohammed doesn't seem uncomfortable in this environment. He knows how to move around, talk to people, how the system works, and how to help others. Part of the reason could be that this isn't the first time he has been a refugee in Burkina Faso.

In 1994, rebels attacked government forces in northern Mali, which led to major ethnic reprisals against Tuaregs. Ag Mohammed's father, a successful civil servant, quickly packed his young family's belongings, and they left their home in the Timbuktu region.

"We had a lot of animals, when we came here to Burkina Faso the first time. [My father] had no problem; he had a lot of animals so the conditions were good," says Ag Mohammed.

His father died a few years ago, and life at the camp is more difficult for his family this time, even with the support from the UN refugee agency.

"Now we have nothing. My mother only has seven cows here - and the aid the UNHCR provides for our family. This is what we have here now," he says.

A life on hold

New arrivals at the camp huddle under the dusty tents that make up the administrative compound. They are having their photos taken and are being registered in the system. Ag Mohammed went through this process himself when he arrived at Mentao in January 2012. He knows how hard it can be for new arrivals to accept that, from now on, they will be living indefinitely as refugees.

"I miss Mali. I miss my friends who were in Mali. I also miss my village, Gossi, our house and our garden. There is no garden here," he says. "I'm not planning to go back to Mali, because I think that all the Tuaregs who left Mali cannot return now. If I return they will say that I am in al Qaeda or something like that. I will be arrested and maybe killed."

Because Ag Mohammed has a university education and speaks four languages, he spends most of his days helping other refugees navigate the bureaucracy of life here in the camp, dealing with immigration documents, housing allocations and food rations. But he feels as if his life is being put on hold.

"There are younger people who said that they do want to return to Mali, because they are not in a good condition here. Some say they would prefer to return to Mali. They have no jobs, they have nothing to do. They stay only drinking tea, without doing anything," he says.

Children pump water from a well in front of tents

Children pump water from a well in front of shelters in the camp


What Ag Mohammed really wants now is to return to university, here in Burkina Faso, and if he's lucky, he can enroll in the coming months. He doesn't know exactly what he'll study, but he's sure it won't be politics.

"I don't like politics," he says. "I think the solution is to have a sustainable peace in the northern part of Mali, in order to live peacefully together without having a problem. This is the only solution."

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