The Malian regions of Timbuktu, Gao and Kidal cover eight hundred thousand square kilometers, a territory now totally controlled by the two jihad movements, that work in the same spirit as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb (AQIM). They are now the controlling organizations in these areas deemed unliveable by their local populations. In July, the UN estimated the population affected by the crisis in Northern Mali at 380,000 people. Since then, the huge migration of these families has intensified with the confirmation of the dominance on the ground of the Salafists and the ideology that they seek to impose on people’s lives. In the beginning, the reason for the flight from the conflict area was the people’s belief that the Malian Army would exact reprisals following their confrontation with the MNLA (National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad). But the next wave of refugees occurred due to the pressure exercised by the Islamists.
History repeats itself. In the 1990’s, pushed out by the conflict between Tuareg rebels and the Malian state, around 150,000 people fled Mali to find refuge in Mauritania. Abdourahmane Ag Mohamed El Moctar, now a refugee for twenty years in Mauritania and president of the Association of Refugee Victims of Repression in Azawad (ARVRA) says, “I did not want to leave! But soldiers I knew told me to leave when I was in Diabaly (in the Segou region). I was Director of a College. I had trained their children for diplomas for more than twenty years! But the order had been given to attack the North. The term they [the authorities of the time] used was ‘Kokadjié’, which means ‘cleansing’. That is, all people with light complexions were to be killed, massacred! When a battalion arrived, I was awakened at night and told: ‘We can’t guarantee your safety. We know you. You are our principal; you are our political general secretary. We have confidence in you, but we cannot control these people out there. They are our bosses. They have a slogan: You have to kill.’ So then I sent my family away... I am one of the refugees who arrived in Mauritania in the early 1990s. I was very sceptical when people returned to Mali in 1995... Unfortunately, time and the current situation have proved me right!”
Abdourahmane added that his brother was killed, lynched in front of his mother, concluding: “There are many others about whom we never speak who shared the same fate.” That was 1990. Many of those who repatriated to Mali in 1995 after the peace accord between the Malian state and the various movements in the North, have now retraced their steps in 2012. They believed that reprisals by the Malian army identical to those of the 1990’s would follow the rebellion of the MNLA begun on 17 January 2012 with the attack on Menaka. Mohamed Ag Malha is a refugee and active member of many civic organizations. He is the main architect of the large intercommunity meeting of 1995 leading to the return of Malian refugees that year. Mohamed is among those who resisted fleeing again. He tells of the first hours when most of the population of Lere, a city located west of Timbuktu, scattered at the end of January 2012: “Fear of the situation that had just occurred in Aguelhoc where Malian army reprisals followed the initial attacks of the rebellion, with aerial bombardments on civilians and their homes, meant that many people just hid or left outright when the attack began to empty the city. Many people went in the direction of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. Others stayed in the open countryside in the immediate vicinity of Lere.“
But 2012 is different. Now, the fears have intensified due to Salafist involvement in northern Mali. Now, the inhabitants have a double fear. In the minds of many, the MNLA rebels and the AQIM / Ancar Dine jihadists could use local populations as human shields. The looting in Bamako of Tuareg and Moor houses was a red flag which sparked a new round of flight as illustrated by the case of Amano Ag Issa, the famous Tuareg artist-griot, who has toured the world with the band Tartit. According to Amano, he was compelled to leave Bamako with his family, like many others, in late January: “I was living quietly in my country, up until the day when an upheaval in our lives occurred. Everything changed! I wondered then: why this surprising and unexpected change? I saw Tuareg, my people randomly attacked and killed, without foundation! This is what made me get out of Mali! I was obliged to leave; we were all forced to leave our homes.”
To choose to live a life – as many have done – stacked by the thousands in refugee camps, with all that this implies, or to live with the fear of arbitrary and extremist repression? It is an easy choice! But what a tragic destiny for a people who only wanted to live quietly! The search for peace has become their main quest. The reception of refugees by Mauritania appears to have eased their immediate pain but famine throughout the Sahel has reached its highest level. In spite of this, Mauritania has taken the lead to welcome newcomers as Mohamed Ag Malha bears witness: “The Mauritanian authorities and the local people in the border town of Fassala have taken the lead. Despite the lack of infrastructure in place, Mauritanians have shared and I can even say that many people have actually opened their homes to receive these refugees, welcoming them in great dignity! This has already decreased the frustrations of people who were psychologically affected by what is happening.”
The first camp that was opened is M’béra, in southeast Mauritania. The Mauritanian town of Fassala is the border entry point most accessible to those who arrive from Mali. Refugees pass through this point before being routed to M’béra, 60 kilometres from the Malian border. Numbers have gradually mounted since January 25, a week after the outbreak of hostilities in Northern Mali. A minimum of one thousand people - sometimes one thousand five hundred arrived each day in the transit camp during the first two months of the conflict. The influx was relatively stable in April when between 300 and 500 people were recorded every day. This decrease is explained by the progressive departure of the troops of the Malian army from the North. Then, reports of a new conflict on the ground between the AQIM extremists, Ancar Dine, the Mujao, and the MNLA rebels were responsible for a sharp increase again reaching proportions similar to those when the conflict began. Overall, the estimated total number of refugees who have arrived in Mauritania increased from 16,000 in February, to 100,000 in late July. A huge refugee camp is now in place. Its size is compared by humanitarian organizations to Dadaab, the Kenyan refugee complex.
The immense camp in Mauritania housing the Malian refugees is five kilometres long and two kilometres wide. This ten square kilometres area of the “great camp and gathering in the desert” is already more than three quarters (3/4) covered by tents. Households are sheltered under tarpaulin tents that can each accommodate approximately 5 people. The proximity of dwellings to one another and their manner of construction are not adapted to the customs of the refugees and sometimes make living conditions difficult. Also, local temperatures can sometimes reach 40 ° C or more. According to UNHCR, the nutritional status of refugees is “satisfactory” at a level comparable to that of the host country. However, there remains an acute risk of malnutrition for these refugees, which could worsen in the coming months. Much remains to be done in the camps, particularly in the area of education and health care. The threat of a cholera epidemic caused by the rainy season is already hitting the region.
“Humanitarian aid is improving little by little”, said Mohamed Ag Malha, but persistent requests by the refugees for milk, a missing dietary element essential to the food balance of these nomadic peoples, have not been answered. Abdourahmane Ag Mohamed El Moctar, the president of ARVRA, said: “Capitalizing on local knowledge and resources is an opportunity of which the international actors such as UNHCR who intervene in the camps should take advantage. It will provide a more adequate response to the situation of these refugees.” Mohamed Mahmoud Sidi shares this view. He is responsible for the Organization for the Assistance to Seriously Ill and At Risk Children (OAEMSD), the Mauritanian NGO that brought the first relief assistance in February to the camp. “We went right away, because we had to do it. We brought the basic necessities first. It was also an assessment mission! We are seeking funding for a programme for the children”. If the necessary resources are not deployed in time, he points out, such a large number of people may pose additional risks to health, security and also the environment. The pressure on scarce resources, already insufficient for local populations, is likely to degrade the Sahara-Sahel environment that is already severely stressed by the consequences of climate change.
To prevent a major catastrophe when it will be much more difficult to act, the High Commission of Refugees to the United Nations plans to open a second camp, a few tens of kilometres away from the first which already has more than the standard 80,000 people. The implementation of a second camp is planned in Aghor, another site that in 1990 also sheltered refugees. According to UNHCR, the opening of Aghor is planned once registration at the first camp ends. An important factor required prior to the new camp opening is the deployment by the Mauritanian authorities of security forces in Aghor. M. Mohamed Abdallah Ould Zeidane, quoted by IRIN, president of the National Commission for Malian Refugees in Mauritania has said: “With so many newcomers and as many aid workers near the border, security is our main source of concern.”
Between 400 and 1000 people arrive every day. A woman about fifty years old, Ihet El Kheir Walet Erzagh, holds her twins by the hand, and tells why she arrived at the camp of M’bera, a few days ago: “Like many other families, we decided to leave, with my husband, our nine children and other members of our group... We came here seven days ago. We lived not far from Timbuktu. And the region had become a hell for us. The Islamists who are there harshly impose their law on us.” In the week following the arrival of this witness, on Sunday, July 29, a couple died under a storm of stones thrown by Islamists who made two hundred people watch the scene to make an example of this couple. How many others have yet to flee?
The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Sybella Wilkes, has complained that they have received only twenty per cent of the 153.7 million dollars requested for assistance to the more than 380,000 total Malian refugees. One must envisage a long-term humanitarian response to the consequences of this Malian crisis. Many have lost their homes, now in the hands of extremists; some have lost relatives. All lost their belongings. But a deeper remedy is required before a different future is possible! . For this to happen, the international community must become more involved politically. For an equitable and sustainable solution to the crisis whose conditions will be kept, the negotiations must not only include the armed groups but also, and especially, members of the civilian groups who are the only and legitimate representatives of the people. Exhausted, those people wait to stand as masters of their own destiny. Will their appeal, amplified by the echo of the desert, be heard ?