Mentao refugee camp near Djibo, Burkina Faso
Deep in the West African Sahel, that geographic belt between the Sahara desert to the north and the savanna to the south, thousands of refugees from Mali wait in the dust. Displaced by two years of conflict and battered by the vicious desert sun, they take shelter under makeshift tents of mats and plastic sheeting that get razed by every storm.
In the sprawling refugee camp of Mentao in the remote northern region of the small landlocked country of Burkina Faso, its weary and frightened inhabitants are dreaming of home.
"We want to return, because we would rather die in our home land than stay here miserably," said Inzoma Ag Athadassa, a 76-year-old Tuareg herder who fled his home near Timbuktu with his family of nine. But, he added, "We are afraid. Peace has not been reestablished in Mali. Someone who fears for his life and his dignity, he doesn't return."
The 12,000 refugees at the camp, some 30 miles from the Malian border, say they are stranded. They have fled the violence in their homeland only to run straight into famine, poverty, and disease, as the food crisis in the Sahel ravages Mali's tiny southern neighbor.
"We have two problems now: the problem of Mali and the problem of life here. We are safe, but the person who is hungry doesn't sleep well, even if you are safe," said Oumar Ag Ibrahim, a 55-year-old Tuareg who left the same town of Gossi in the Timbuktu area in February 2012. "There's no life without food," he added. "We feel trapped."
Burkina Faso is one of several Sahel countries deep in a years-long drought that has claimed thousands of lives and left millions battling for survival. This year, over 20 million people in the region are facing food insecurity, and 5 million children are malnourished. While the refugees receive aid including food rations from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and organizations such as ECHO, the European Commission's humanitarian agency, international help has dwindled in recent months. "There is not enough medicine, there is not enough shelter, there is not a lot coming this year," said Ibrahim. "There is nothing to eat."
In better times, they could venture outside the camp to buy extra food with their monthly aid allowance of 3,500 Central African Francs (about $7) per person. But as the local population struggles with drought and failed harvests, there is less and less produce to be found.
Oumar Ag Ibrahim (far left), who fled Mali in February 2012
"We go around in the villages looking for rice, millet, sorghum, and we don't find it. There is no feed for the animals," Ibrahim said. "The needs are everywhere."
Struggling to eke out an existence and longing for home, some refugees have made attempts to return. But many have since come back to the camp, bringing tales of violence, revenge attacks, and chaos.
"The situation of the refugees is one of fear. There's some people who prefer to return home rather than stay," said Athadassa. They had left initially because they realized "certain colors" were being targeted, referring to the lighter skin of the Tuareg, a nomadic Berber people. Now those who were returning were falling victim to retaliation against "the wrongdoers—the Islamists and their associates."
Mali shot to the top of the international agenda in 2012 when Tuareg separatist rebels of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), backed by Islamist groups, seized control of the north and declared the region an independent country. But as the Islamists began to impose their vision of a Sharia state, the uneasy alliance started to fracture. The MNLA separatists and the Islamists who had hijacked their rebellion turned on each other, and when France deployed troops in January 2013, the separatists realigned themselves with the international mission and their former government enemies to beat back the monster they had helped to unleash.
A peace initiative was signed in Burkina Faso in June 2013. But clashes continued and the MNLA declared the ceasefire dead a few months later.
In May, a renewed surge in violence between MNLA forces and the army killed dozens and sent a fresh tide of refugees spilling into neighboring countries. The government announced it was once again "at war" with the Tuareg. A fragile ceasefire has now been brokered, but the rebels have held to their positions, and, given the history, few are hopeful that it will lead to a meaningful peace.
In June, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed alarm at the deteriorating security in Mali, noting clashes between government troops and armed groups, as well as between Islamists and the MNLA. The Tuareg were suffering revenge attacks and threats from Islamists and other groups, he said. Human rights groups have also reported abuses and killings by government forces and loyalists, with the Tuareg one of the primary targets.
"If there is no problem in Mali, what has been resolved in Mali?" Ibrahim said. "Every day you hear that that person is dead. Every day you hear of clashes. Even the day before yesterday there was a clash between MNLA and the Islamists. There are still problems—the Islamists are still in the north of Mali, and who do they look for? We are northists, we are MNLA, so as long as that is happening in Mali we can't return."
But little international attention has been paid to the country's latest round of fighting. The television cameras, for the most part, have left, drawn to newer conflicts closer to home—to Syria, to Iraq, to Ukraine.
"In 2012 and 2013 there were a lot of partners that came to complement the aid of the UNHCR, but in 2014, everybody has gone to Russia," said Ibrahim, referring to the crisis in Ukraine. "We feel abandoned. All the world is taking care of Russia, [they think] that's where the serious problem is."
The Burkina Faso government is it struggling to feed its own population. And since it is a mediator in the Mali conflict, the presence of the 32,000 refugees within its borders is politically sensitive. Quietly, it agreed with the UNHCR in talks in May to move toward a strategy of "voluntary repatriation" for the refugees.
A woman walks through the Mentao refugee camp
The UNHCR appears caught between competing interests. It insists the refugees are "welcome" in Burkina Faso, yet acknowledges that given the country's own difficulties with the food crisis, repatriation should come "the sooner, the better." Following the May agreement, it began an information campaign in one of Burkina Faso's three refugee camps about what return would mean. Refugees are given advice about the risks they may face in Mali; those that choose to go are made to sign a disclaimer.
At the same time, thew UN insists it recognizes that it is not yet safe for the refugees to go home. "We fully agree the conditions in Mali are not yet conducive [to return]," said Angèle Djohossou, the UNHCR deputy representative in Burkina Faso. The UN is not "encouraging" them to do so, she said.
But, Djohossou said, "Burkina Faso is a very poor country, and when the Mali crisis occurred, Burkina Faso was facing its own socioeconomic problems, including food insecurity, floods, malnutrition… It is an additional burden to the government." The UN is seeking extra funding to help, she added.
A senior EU official in the region said that those competing interests can "fuel tensions." As for the refugees, he said, "There is certainly the feeling that they are abandoned... The longer the stay, the worse it is."
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