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Malians hope to return

Peter Hille (csc)
December 26, 2012

Hundreds of thousands have fled the famine and war in northern Mali. Around 40,000 Malians are now in refugee camps in neighboring Burkina Faso alone. And more could be arriving soon.

Malian refugees at Sag-Nioniogo Refugee Camp in Burkina Faso
Image: DW/Peter Hille

The sun is slowly going down, but it's still burning hot at the Sag-Nioniogo refugee camp in Burkina Faso. It's afternoon prayer time for refugees from Mali. They are kneeling side by side in a long row. Most of them are wearing the traditional veils of the Tuaregs. At the end of the prayer, they greet each other with the formal "peace be with you."

Most of the refugees traveled for a long time to flee the violence of Islamist rebels and bandits in northern Mali.

Getting away is what matters

Malian refugee at Sag-Nioniogo Refugee Camp in Burkina Faso
Many people at Sag-Nioniogo Refugee Camp hope to return home one day.Image: DW/Peter Hille

Hammadou Ongoiba had to leave their belongings and home in Douentza.

"The MUJAO (Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa) rebels arrived in pick-up trucks in our town at the beginning of September," he told DW.

The rebels claim to be religious, but what they do has nothing to do with religion, he added. They cut off the hands and feet of thieves and stone adulterers.

"They even take women for sex," Ongoiba said.

He shows his UN Refugee Certificate with a relieved smile. It gives him and his family the right to remain at Sag-Nioniogo – one of the six refugee camps in Burkina Faso, Mali's neighboring country.

Despite the safety of Sag-Nioniogo, which is 200 kilometers from northern Mali, Ongoiba still hopes that he will be able to return home soon with his family.

Controversy over military action

But that's not the case for everyone. Naim Ben Mohammed's family has already given up hope of returning home. They moved into a tent just a few meters away from the Ongoibas' new home. At first, they fled from Timbuktu to another camp, and then moved further away to Sag-Nioniogo. However, Mohammed's family had to be leave behind the elderly grandparents in Timbuktu.

"That's why I'm against military intervention in Mali," he told DW.

Image of a refugee with a child on her back.
The life situation of refugees is precarious.Image: DW/Peter Hille

He fears that foreign troops will not be able to differentiate between rebels and civilians.

"If decided, a military operation could have bad consequences," he said.

A possible military intervention of African troops in northern Mali is being heavily debated.

But in contrast to Mohammed, most of the refugees support military intervention. They are hoping that foreign troops can quickly free their homeland from the Islamists.

However, Tuaregs like Mohammed are hoping for negotiations between the regime in Bamako and the rebels in northern Mali. Apart from the humanitarian consequences of an intervention, they fear that their dreams of more autonomy for Tuaregs could be shattered forever.

UNHCR expects up to 100,000 new refugees

Even if the plans for a military intervention are proceeding very slowly, UNHCR country director Hugo Reichenberger is ready for one.

The head of the UN refugee agency's operations in Burkina Faso recently visited t the newly opened refugee camp in Sag-Nioniogo.

Image of the refugees at Sag-Nioniogo Refugee Camp in Burkina Faso (Photo: Peter Hille, DW) I
The UNHCR expects new refugees to continue arriving.Image: DW/Peter Hille

"We are already working on an emergency plan," he explains.

If there's a military intervention, the number of refugees could increase.

"There could be again 100,000 refugees from Mali in Burkina Faso alone," he said, while adding that the figure was only an estimate.

But first, Reichenberger would like to provide for those who are already here. Many things are still lacking because donor countries have been slow to respond to the crisis in Mali and have not committed enough aid.

"There's a primary school, but no school for the older children. And then we would like to build accommodation in the traditional style of nomads," Reichenberger said.

The new accomodation will be needed soon. Several new arrivals from Mali are standing in line under the straw roof of the UNHCR's makeshift registration office.

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