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A Tenuous Life for Malian Refugees in the Desert


UN refugee camp Mauritania
A United Nations group in an official vehicle en route from the town of Bassikounou to the Mbera refugee camp in eastern Mauritania in May 2012. The roads are about to become impassable during the rainy season, reducing food and other vital deliveries. JOE PENNEY

MBERA REFUGEE CAMP, Mauritania — One major fallout from the eruptions that began between Tuareg rebels in northern Mali and government troops last winter— spurred by NATO’s war in Libya, which sent thousands of Tuaregs back home to Mali with Libyan military weapons — was not only a coup d’état but also an influx of refugees seeking safer environs. But in this region of sandstorms, droughts and famines, “safe” is a relative term.

Since the coup, which occurred in March, about 320,000 people have left northern Mali, relocating to countries nearby or in the capital, Bamako. Along the Mauritania border in southwest Mali, just 270 miles from Timbuktu, which is overrun by Tuareg rebels and other armed groups clashing with one another, the coup repercussions are clear.

At the Mbera camp here, a mere 25 miles from Mali among the endless dunes, the largest temporary settlement in the region has been taking in Tuaregs and Berber Arabs, who have been arriving from the Timbuktu area by foot and by truck, often trudging in with their cattle, goats and donkeys. Fiercely independent nomads, those encamped feel suddenly dependent on foreign aid agencies and the United Nations to manage their daily existence.

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The camp has been quickly gearing up to cope with the new refugees, who last month streamed in at about 1,000 a day but since then have slowed to hundreds. A Doctors Without Borders clinic is up and running, and a surgery center is to offer services in Bassikounou nearby. The refugees are primarily Muslim, with the Berbers speaking Arabic and the Tuaregs speaking an indigenous language, Tamashek, although many know Arabic, too.

About 63,000 refugees, 60 percent of them children, make up Mbera. They all receive individual rations of fortified cereal, vegetable oil, salt, sugar and other staples, about 2,100 calories a day. In a region compromised by severe water shortages, about 9 liters of water (around 10 quarts) are available each day for each person, far short of the standard 20 liters in stable conditions in camps. (Water at Mbera comes from groundwater sources and deliveries from nonprofit groups like Oxfam and the Mauritanian government.)

Tentlike shelters, jerry cans, sleeping nets and blankets are also provided. The refugees recreate a sense of home with the lightweight goods they carried with them, like colorful dyed cloths and rugs, the men adorned in wrapped turbans and the women wearing breezy caftans and scarfs. While their situation is precarious, their previous lives in Mali were equally tenuous. Failed harvests and high food prices in the Sahel region have bestowed dire conditions, a situation that the UN has been communicating to the rest of the world for more than a year. To add insult to the region, swarms of locusts have descended, devouring the remaining harvests.

Vaccinations provided by the UN and other groups are under way at the camp to prevent such diseases as polio and diarrhea, while respiratory infections are cropping up from not enough water for everyone. The heat can soar to 120 degrees. About four classrooms keep a small percentage of children busy. The teachers, mostly Malian Tuaregs who worked in their own country and earned a salary of $400 to $600 a month, say they have not been paid their new meager monthly rate of 20,000 Mauritanian ougiya (roughly $80).

The UN World Food Program has increased supplies to the camp, although a spokeswoman, Jane Howard, told PassBlue that some food stock will run out this month. Rice, she said, is in good stead until December.

The rainy season, this month and next, is dreaded, as deliveries will be radically hampered given the poor, often nonexistent roads. The food agency has stationed temporary warehouses to contend with the problem, including setting up emergency-food storage tents. Before the refugee crisis, the World Food Program had been ensuring supplies in Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger as part of its emergency work in the Sahel region; now that plan includes the refugees, it will support about 9.6 million people. The UN refugee agency has also recalculated its efforts in the Sahel, saying it needs $154 million but that only about 13 percent has been met so far.

Malian refugee camp
Four schools in the camp keep a small percentage of the children busy as the temperature soars up to 120 degrees during the day. The teachers are Malian Tuaregs. JOE PENNEY

Yet for people in Mbera, life could be far worse back in Timbuktu, where houses have been set on fire, holy sites have been attacked and Sharia law has been instituted by at least one Islamic sect, Ansar Dine. Ansar Dine has both agreed to align with the Tuaregs, or the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (what they want their breakaway country to be called) and rescinded such pledges in the last weeks as the groups argue over the Islamization of the region. Other militias haunt northern Mali, such as the Boko Haram from Nigeria and Al Qaeda of the Maghreb, many of them mercenaries who escaped during the Libyan revolt in 2011.

Bamako, Mali’s capital, is not much safer. The interim president, Dioncounda Traoré, who was installed by the military coup leaders after negotiations to restore order, was attacked in the palace last month by Malian protestors and left for Paris to receive medical care. He apparently has not returned.

António Guterres, the head of the UN refugee agency and a Portuguese, spoke in late May in New York to promote “The State of the World’s Refugees: In Search of Solidarity,” a summary of the last five years. At one event, Guterres said that “Mali is a forgotten situation” and that the various rebels holding sway in the north have created a “global security problem.” From Libya to Nigeria, from Mauritania to Somalia, Guterres said, a major threat is unfolding as the world pays more attention to Syria and, to a lesser extent, Sudan.

Alarms were also sounded by Niger’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, who told France 24 television recently that jihadists from Pakistan and Afghanistan were training Islamic groups in northern Mali. “They are the ones who are training those who have been recruited across various West African countries,” Issoufou, whose country borders Mali, said.

Victoria Nuland, a US State Department spokeswoman, commented in a press briefing on the matter last week, noting that the Malian coup leader, Amadou Sanogo, should sign on to the “generous” peace negotiations being offered to him to reinstate democratic rule and secure his country better.

But the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which is managing the negotiations, has started clamoring for a UN military intervention in northern Mali, where anarchy now rules.

Additional resources

The International Court Names the Officials Being Held in Libya

Timbuktu Treasures at Risk

A West African Coup’s Ripple Effects

A Transition in Sight for Mali

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Joe Penney

Joe Penney is a writer, filmmaker and photographer who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lagos. He directed a documentary, “Sun of the Soil: The Story of Mansa Musa,” about the reign of Mali’s 14th-century king. Penney’s articles and essays have been published by The Intercept, The New York Times, Quartz, Reuters and Paris journals. He was West African photo bureau chief for Reuters, and his pictures have appeared in Geo, Jeune Afrique, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Time, among others. He has photographed presidential elections in Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as well as the 2012 coup in Mali and the French military intervention in 2013, Mauritanian refugee camps, mining sites in Niger, migrants in the Sahel, counterterrorism campaigns in Cameroon, the 2013-2014 conflict in Central African Republic and the people’s coup in Burkina Faso in 2014. Penney co-founded, a news company covering the Sahel region, in 2013. In Africa, he has lived in Ivory Coast, Mali and Senegal. He graduated from McGill University in Montreal and speaks English, French and Spanish.

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