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West Africa

Hoping to return home

Recurrent violence is haunting northern Mali. Thousands of Malians have fled to neighbouring Niger, which is struggling to cope with the onslaught of refugees.

By Yahouza Sadissou

For some 30 years, conflict between governmental troops and separatist Tuareg rebels in Mali’s north flared up repeatedly. Members of the Tuareg independence movement dreamed of founding an independent state called Azawad. Civilians, especially women and children, suffered most from the armed clashes. Previous rebellions cost tremendous sacrifice. Many people died, others lived at the mercy of protection rackets, and yet others moved away, although typically without leaving the country.

The current crisis that began at the beginning of 2012 is by far the worst however. This year alone, thousands of Malians have been forced to flee their country.

The situation is unusually complex. The Tuareg rebels of the MNLA (Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad, Azawad National Liberation Movement), took advantage of the power vacuum created at the beginning of the year when a military coup toppled President Amadou Toumani on 22 March 2012. They briefly managed to get control of the northern half of the country, but were soon driven out again by their Islamist allies, especially the Ansar Dine militia and the MUJAO (Mouvement pour l’Unité et le Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa). These forces swiftly introduced Islamic law – the Sharia – in the towns of Goa, Kidal and Timbuktu.

Imposition of Sharia law, insecurity in general and famine made many people flee to safer regions. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that more than 400,000 people were driven out of northern Mali, a figure that includes both those who fled to southern Mali and those who fled to neighbouring countries such as Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania.

So far, Niger has absorbed more than 60,000 refugees from Mali, most of whom are housed in the border region of Tillabéry, whose inhabitants were already dirt poor and faced famine. The refugees have only worsened the situation.

Out of solidarity, villagers took in some of the refugees, but there were soon more people than could be absorbed. Several thousand Malians set up tents outside villages. The government and international organisations do not know what to do about the situation because the refugees have nothing and therefore need everything – housing, food, clean drinking water and health care.

Cholera and meningitis

In July, there were ten cases of cholera and meningitis in the Tabareybarey refugee camp in Tillabéry. The mobile healthcare centre set up by Doctors without Borders, the international non-governmental organisation, has done a lot to cure these illnesses, but new cases can crop up any time in the over-crowded refugee camps.

Precarious conditions mean that other illnesses can break out any time too, including measles, malaria, diarrhoea and respiratory diseases. The elderly and children are especially at risk. The crisis in Mali places a great burden on the entire Sahel region. Things are especially tough in Niger, a country that only recently had to cope with food shortages and never fully recovered from that crisis.

Along with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the government of Niger has begun distributing food, blankets and water. So far, however, not nearly enough has been done to fulfil people’s needs.

The need for more schools

Another problem that refugees from Mali face is how to get their children educated. These kids had to leave school nearly a year ago. The government of Niger is planning to set up schools in the refugee camps, but that project is hard to implement, especially because thousands of children need to be served. In addition to civilian refugees, Niger has also provided shelter for hundreds of military refugees fleeing from the MNLA.

Since the beginning of the crisis, the regional organisation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has been looking into how Mali can be helped. But opponents and proponents of the military coup in spring have, in effect, prevented any tangible efforts so far. The situation has, however, calmed down a bit since the new transitional government took office. Dioncounda Traoré, Mali’s transitional president, officially asked the UN Security Counsel to send international troops to the northern part of his country. Malians hope that things will be sorted out.

On 12 October, the Security Council resolved to send some 3,000 soldiers, primarily ECOWAS troops, to northern Mali to liberate the area from the control of the Islamists, who are working with AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). Refugees from northern Mali impatiently await military intervention hoping it will eventually allow them to return home when D+C/E+Z went to press in mid-november, intervention plans were being made (See D+C/E+Z 2012/11 p.439). Humanitarian organisations based in Niamey, however, were already sounding the alarm, saying that military intervention could result in another 55,000 refugees coming to Niger. The UN Refugee Agency has already begun organising its partners in Niamey in preparation for a new wave of refugees.