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
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
poverty. There are no starving children, no one has fled battling forces, and not
many have trekked miles to get here
Here at MENTAO refugee camp near Djibo there are none of our expected images
poverty. There are no starving children, no one has fled battling forces, not many
have trekked miles to get here
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 mess.
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 place
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
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
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 situation
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 community.
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
For now we are safe and doing fine in Burkina, if only it wasn’t so hot!