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Mali refugees in Burkina Faso. (Photo: Peter Hille)
Image: DW/Peter Hille

Mali still unsafe

Katrin Matthaei/ael
June 19, 2013

More than 447,000 people, mainly from the Tuareg ethnic group, have fled northern Mali to the south or to neighboring countries. After months of being on the run, some of them now want to return home.


Nafisa Walet Nafisa is sitting inside a large tent with her three daughters Neya, Halima and Tatu. On the floor there are a couple of mattresses and blankets to be seen. In one corner are the cooking utensils. To kill time, the three girls play with a few pebbles on the ground and sing.

Nafisa's family is among 174,100 refugees who in January 2012, fled Mali to escape the Tuareg rebellion. They came to Mentao South, one of the eleven refugee camps in Burkina Faso. One and a half years on, Nafisa and her daughters miss their home.

"If only the government would come to an agreement with the Liberation Movement of Azawad, then we would be off tonight," said Nafisa, sighing. She says, if it were up to her, northern Mali would have become independent and would have established itself as a new state of Azawad - as many Tuareg wish.

Infographic: Refugees from Mali Olof Pock Datum 18.06.2013

The interview with Nafisa was done two months back. But it is unlikely that the family has returned to their homeland. The Tuareg rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and the High Council for Unity in the Azawad (HCUA) have been conducting tough negotiations with the Malian central government on whether elections planned for 28 July, 2013 could also be held in the northern city of Kidal. The agreement which was signed on 18 June, 2013 is seen by the international community as an historic event.

According to Human Rights Watch, the tough battle between the Tuaregs and the Malian central government in the north has led to serious human rights violations. The region is still insecure - although the French army and the troops of the West African Economic Community, ECOWAS, have largely suppressed the Islamists.

The fear is stronger than the homesickness

"We haven't see anyone returning home" said Karl Steinacker, Director of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in neighboring Niger. The Niger refugee camp is the second largest with 50,000 Malian refugees, lagging behind Mauritania which hosts 74,000 refugees.

Mali refugees in Burkina Faso Photo: Peter Hille
More than 174, 100 Mali refugees are living in neighboring countriesImage: DW/Peter Hille

Steinacke thinks the situation in the country is dire and he does not think that it could improve anytime soon. The refugees don't feel safe. The majority of them are from the Tuareg ethnic group and so it must be ensured that the Malian army is under international observation, Steinacker says.

This is the only way of preventing assaults by the Malian army on the Tuaregs. At least two years are needed before the refugees can return to their homes permanently, says Steinacker.

Nomadic life in the refugee camp

Back in the camp in Burkina Faso, Nafisa Walet Nafisa prepares lunch. On the menu is rice with some vegetables. Actually that is how it is every day - the only meal a day. Meat, which is eaten frequently by many Tuareg families, is not distributed in the camp. Refugees lack money to buy other types of food.

Nevertheless, "Many refugees in the camp are better off than the people in the host country," Karl Steinacker points out. The refugee agency ensures that water and medicine are available in the camp and also that education for the children who live in the camp is provided. The World Food Programme provides food.

The Tuaregs are traditionally nomads. Just like Nafisa Wallet Nafisa, many of them had left their cattle back home or have sold them. Some of them who fled to Niger with their cattle continue to live a nomadic life with their livestock. The UNHCR has convinced the authorities that they should provide them with a piece of land for their livestock.

Refugees in their own country
According to the UNHCR, at least 80 percent of Malian Tuareg refugees are in neighboring countries. Members of other ethnic groups, such as the Foula or the Songhai, have sought protection inside Mali. The UNHCR estimates the number of IDPs to be 300,000. Aisha Yattara is one of them: She is swinging her two-month-old son back and forth. The baby is cranky and always cries. The young mother tries to calm the little one, but with no success. "The child is sick," she says. Actually, it urgently needs to see a doctor. But Aisha Yattara does not have the money. Her last hope is her older sister.

A man standing inside a tent. Photo: Peter Hille
Most of the refugees who fled northern Mali are from the Tuareg ethnic groupImage: DW/Peter Hille

"If she comes and brings money, then we can go to the doctor and get the little one checked." Since June 2012, the young woman with her husband, her mother and ten siblings have been living in the Malian capital, Bamako. The brutality of the Islamist regime had forced them to flee their home town of Gao in the north.

Daily concern for food and money
While the refugees in neighboring countries are supplied with food, a roof over their heads and medicine, the IDPs inside the country must fend for themselves. They live off their savings or are supported by their relatives.

A woman walking. Photo: Peter Hille
Unlike refugees, Malian IDPs feel lost in their home country and no one is taking care of themImage: DW/Peter Hille

Most of them are living in Bamako, Mopti and Severe. They are either living with their relatives or in rented houses. Getting supplies is one of the challenges they face. "Food is sometimes brought to us by some people," says Fatouma Arbi. "I have a brother who lives here in town, but he has brought us some food only three or four times." She is more worried about her rent in Bako Djikoroni area, where her family found a three room apartment. She has to pay 50,000 CFA Francs ($100, 75 euros) for accommodation. "I am already two months behind with my monthly payment. They will throw me out. I do not know how I will pay it," she says.

The UNHCR says it is aware of the problems that refugees are facing. Eduardo Cue, UNHCR's spokesman in Bamako, says the organization is considering whether they could take over rental costs. The expensive life in the capital is already forcing IDPs to return home. Fatouma Abri also does not want to wait until the north is again considered safe. She wants to go back to Gao - and leave behind this constant worry about food, her debts, and the capital, Bamako, where she would never have gone voluntarily.

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