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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
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, and not many have trekked miles to get here 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 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 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 1990’s. 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 staying put. For now we are safe and doing fine in Burkina, if only it wasn’t so hot!
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