• Text size Normal size text | Increase text size by 10% | Increase text size by 20% | Increase text size by 30%

Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (Focus : 1996 in review) - M'Berra: A victim of its success

Refugees Magazine, 1 December 1996

M'Berra camp in Mauritania is emptying fast. Thousands of Malian refugees fled the violence and repression in the north of the country in the early 1990s. But now that peace has returned, the refugees are heading back to Mali.

By Randall Koral

The pilot said we were directly above M'Berra camp. I looked out, expecting a field of blue-capped tents to rise suddenly and dramatically out of the Sahara. I saw only an arid expanse of brown, shimmering in the heat-haze.

The pilot manoeuvered the plane through a few slow circles, but it wasn't much help. I could barely tell where the desert ended and the camp began. I wasn't worried, though. M'Berra and I would get to know each other.

At the time of my visit in October, at the beginning of the dry season, there were just under 28,000 refugees living in this remote corner of Mauritania. They were primarily Malians, of Tuareg and Moor origin, who had fled the fighting that erupted in Mali and Niger in the early 1990s. Tuareg groups, "armed bandits" as they were called officially, had mounted attacks against convoys in the north of Mali. To escape the violence and repression that ensued, thousands of Malians went to neighbouring countries.

There are still 100,000 Malian refugees in four countries: 28,000 in Mauritania, 25,000 in Burkina Faso, 20,500 in Niger and 15,500 in Algeria. But now that peace has returned, the refugees are heading back to Mali.

I had come to M'Berra camp to prepare a documentary on refugees.

Journalists usually do well to shy away from stories with happy endings, especially when there is so much unhappiness to report from Africa. But this was one story that promised to end happily, and I found myself looking forward to telling it. More refugees are going home every day. M'Berra camp may be closed by the time you read this, a victim of its own success.

Since June 1995 more than 14,000 of the refugees who had fled to M'Berra had returned to Mali. The combatants who had turned the north of the country into a war zone now seemed serious about keeping the peace.

They came together in Timbuktu, on 27 March 1996, and threw their weapons onto a bonfire that lit up the night. The message was clear. For all the questions that remained about Mali's future, about the country's ability to pull itself out of devastating poverty, there was now an overwhelming argument for hope.

The first refugees I met at M'Berra were from a place in the desert just west of Léré. Mohammed Ag Hawadan and his family once lived as nomads. They wandered in search of grazing land for their livestock, until the droughts of the early '80s wiped them out. He arrived in Mauritania with his wife, son and three daughters in 1991. Members of his wife's family had been killed by soldiers. At M'Berra camp, Mohammed found work in the camp hospital. When I met him he was spending much of his day going from tent to tent, advising his fellow refugees on medical matters. "What I do is very important," he told me, with evident pride. "Especially making sure that the children receive their vaccinations."

Was he now prepared to go back to Mali? He said he was. The chief of the Tuareg clan to which Mohammed and his family belong had already gone back to the spot near Léré, to prepare the way for the others. "It's another life now," Mohammed explained. "Before, people worked with animals and passed that work tradition down from generation to generation. Now there are no more animals, and schooling has become much more important."

The following day I met a group of slaves who had managed to set themselves free. Even though slavery has been officially outlawed in Mali and Mauritania, the practice continues among certain groups of Moor and Tuareg who draw slaves from, respectively, the Harratin and the Bella populations.

The Bellas I met had arrived in the camp as the "property" of some Tuareg shepherds. When the shepherds decided to go back to Mali, the Bellas refused to accompany them. "We no longer wanted to be attached to someone," explained Alhousseini Ag Goulounbou, the Bella chieftain. "We wanted our independence."

I stayed in M'Berra camp long enough to get to know a few refugee families.

I watched children learn to count in the school. I saw women doing the hardest work building tents, dying fabric, pounding the millet before sunrise and then starting again as soon as the twilight had cut the day's heat. One of those women told me, "If I have no work, I'll look for something to sew or I'll do some other task so that I'm not idle."

I also got to know a few more people on the UNHCR side of the fence. Paolo Artini is a field officer based in Bassikounou, about 17 km north-west of M'Berra camp. He has the ability to navigate around a refugee camp more comfortably than I can navigate around my kitchen. Better than that, Paolo has an easy rapport with people in general, and with the refugees at M'Berra in particular, and he managed to save me from my own ignorance on more than one occasion.

Paolo has worked as a protection officer in Kuwait and Armenia, but he seems ideally suited to the work that has to be done in a camp situation. He takes an active role in organizing convoys, sometimes driving the trucks, and occasionally he participates in fact-finding missions to repatriation sites.

After I had left M'Berra I crossed paths with Paolo a week later in Timbuktu. He had come there with six refugee leaders three Moor, three Tuareg who had wanted to see for themselves what Mali had in store for them. "It isn't like I'm UNHCR staff and they're refugees," Paolo explained. "We all eat together, sitting on the ground. We're just people who came together from M'Berra, and we want to stay together. At one point they thanked me and said, 'You can't know someone if you don't travel with him.'"

I asked Paolo about his future plans. "I'd like to stay in Africa, but the refugees are leaving M'Berra very quickly. The camp will probably be closed by the end of the year."

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 106 (1996)




UNHCR country pages

Mali Crisis: Urgent Appeal

More than 300,000 Malians have been forced to abandon homes in the hope of finding safety. Help us protect them.

Donate to this crisis

The Most Important Thing – Malian Refugees in Burkina Faso

"The Most Important Thing" documents - in words and pictures - some of the tough decisions people face when they have to flee their home. With support from UNHCR, American photographer Brian Sokol began the project in South Sudan, taking portraits of Sudanese refugees carrying the most valuable possession they brought with them into exile. He also asked them to explain their decision. Sokol continued with Syrian refugees in Iraq and in this photo essay looks at Malians in refugee camps in neighbouring Burkina Faso. While the photographs may reveal a fair amount about the subjects, it is their words - their stories - that share far more.

For the Sudanese, the most important things were primarily objects to keep them alive during their long, difficult journey: a pot, an axe, a water jug or a basket. For Syrians, the objects were largely sentimental: an old ring, a torn photograph, the key to a door that may no longer exist. Among the Malians depicted in this photo gallery, the objects largely had to do with their cultural identity. They spoke of how the items helped them to still feel part of their people, despite being forced into exile.

The Most Important Thing – Malian Refugees in Burkina Faso

Relocation from the Border Country of Burkina Faso

The process of relocating refugees from one site to a safer one is full of challenges. In Burkina Faso, the UN refugee agency has been working with partner organizations and the government to move thousands of Malian refugee families away from border sites like Damba to a safer camp some 100 kilometres to the south. Working under hot and harsh conditions, the aid workers had to dismantle shelters and help people load their belongings onto trucks for the journey. The new site at Mentao is also much easier to access with emergency assistance, including shelter, food, health care and education. These images, taken by photographer Brian Sokol, follow the journey made by Agade Ag Mohammed, a 71-year-old nomad, and his family from Damba to Mentao in March. They fled their home in Gao province last year to escape the violence in Mali, including a massacre that left two of his sons, a brother and five nephews dead. As of mid-April 2013 there were more than 173,000 Malian refugees in neighbouring countries. Within the arid West African nation there are an estimated 260,000 internally displaced people.

Relocation from the Border Country of Burkina Faso

UNHCR and Partners Tackle Malnutrition in Mauritania Camp

The UN refugee agency has just renewed its appeal for funds to help meet the needs of tens of thousands of Malian refugees and almost 300,000 internally displaced people. The funding UNHCR is seeking is needed, among other things, for the provision of supplementary and therapeutic food and delivery of health care, including for those suffering from malnutrition. This is one of UNHCR's main concerns in the Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania, which hosts more than 70,000 Malians. A survey on nutrition conducted last January in the camp found that more than 13 per cent of refugee children aged under five suffer from acute malnutrition and more than 41 per cent from chronic malnutrition. Several measures have been taken to treat and prevent malnutrition, including distribution of nutritional supplements to babies and infants, organization of awareness sessions for mothers, increased access to health facilities, launch of a measles vaccination campaign and installation of better water and sanitation infrastructure. Additional funding is needed to improve the prevention and response mechanisms. UNHCR appealed last year for US$144 million for its Mali crisis operations in 2013, but has received only 32 per cent to date. The most urgent needs are food, shelter, sanitation, health care and education.

The photographs in this set were taken by Bechir Malum.

UNHCR and Partners Tackle Malnutrition in Mauritania Camp

Mauritania: Mali Elections In Mauritania Play video

Mauritania: Mali Elections In Mauritania

Hundreds of Malian refugees voted in exile at the weekend in the presidential election in their home country, way down on the numbers eligible to cast a ballot.
Mali: Going Back Home Play video

Mali: Going Back Home

A trickle of displaced Malians undertake the journey back to their towns and villages.
Mali: Waiting to ReturnPlay video

Mali: Waiting to Return

After spending months in the central Mali town of Mopti, hundreds of displaced families are anxious to go back to their homes in the north. But security is still a concern.