A sinking feeling of deja vu for twice displaced Mali refugee

News Stories, 10 April 2013

© UNHCR/B.Malum
Tall, with piercing but kindly eyes, Ahmadou is an ethnic Tuareg community leader from central Mali.

MBERA CAMP, Mauritania, April 10 (UNHCR) Ahmadou sometimes feels as though Mbera Refugee Camp has become a second home, but he's not happy about it. He spent five years here in the 1990s and now he's back, forced from his home by the conflict in neighbouring Mali and wondering how long he will be in Mbera this time.

The Malian government regained control of his home region earlier this year with French military help, but many refugees remain concerned about the situation there and are not willing to return, especially ethnic Tuareg who fear retribution. UNHCR is among those helping the refugees as they wait to see how the situation evolves in Mali.

"I first fled my country in 1991 and I returned home in 1996, convinced that I had nothing more to fear and that I could live there in complete safety," he told UNHCR. "In 2012, history repeats itself and I find myself in the same situation, if not worse off."

Tall, with piercing but kindly eyes, Ahmadou is an ethnic Tuareg community leader in the central Mali town of Léré, located about 60 kilometres east of the border with Mauritania. He heads a family of 17 people in Mbera, where he also represents the refugees in one sector of the big camp.

He's a natural leader, used to dealing with problems and solving them. But strong as Ahmadou is, he was powerless to stop the conflict from coming to his home area and disrupting the lives of those who look up to and rely on him. And in the end he and his kin also had to flee into exile for a second time.

Ahmadou still remembers vividly the first time he was forced to flee to Mbera, which is located about 60 kms inside Mauritania. Tuareg separatists in northern Mali rose up against the government in 1990, citing years of discrimination. In the forced displacement that followed, thousands of civilians fled to Mauritania and other neighbouring countries.

"There was a massacre in Léré, when people were killed because of their origin," Ahmadou recalled. "The day I discovered the bodies of men and women piled up in a common grave, I packed my belongings and headed to the Mauritanian border."

Ahmadou arrived in Mauritania in May 1991 and it was five long years before he was able to return to Léré with UNHCR's help. He then had to start from scratch and rebuild his life. "We had lost everything: our home, our animals, our access to water, everything."

With the help of humanitarian aid organizations, returnees rebuilt water distribution systems and returned to their old life. Ahmadou became involved in agriculture and construction. But early last year, conflict returned to Mali when Tuareg rebels in the north launched an offensive, capturing towns in north and central Mali including Timbuktu and nearby Léré.

"We fled, fearing reprisals [because Tuaregs were identified with the rebels]. The army was not making any distinction between civilians and combattants and we were caught in the middle," Ahmadou explained, adding that the uprising came as no surprise to many because the government had failed to honour pledges to develop infrastructure and basic services in the north of the country.

On his arrival in Mauritania, Ahmadou soon found his feet in the familiar surroundings of Mbera Camp. He also found many old friends who had arrived with him in 1991 and stayed in the Mbera area. And, after a year here, he has no plans to return either.

"People continue to arrive every day in Mauritania and I'm sure they will continue to arrive for many more months," he predicted. "The security situation is bad and the desire for vengeance is still very strong. We can't go back in this atmosphere. I need to think hard about when to return this time; I don't want to become a refugee for the third time."

Ahmadou added: "Nobody wants to become a refugee. If I possible I would not spend a single night here, but I will only return when the security conditions are right and my rights as a citizen are respected."

Since the beginning of the French-backed military intervention in Mali last January, Mauritania has received 21,600 arrivals from Mali, the majority of whom are women and children. In late March, Mbera refugee camp was hosting more than 75,000 Malian refugees. Mauritania shelters more refugees from Mali than any other country.

By Dalia Al Aichi in Mbera Refugee Camp, Mauritania

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •

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

UNHCR Mauritania Fact Sheet

(French only, available on UNHCR's French website)

Malian refugees flee for safety to Niger

Thousands of Malian families have arrived in Niger since mid-January, fleeing fighting between a rebel Tuareg movement and Malian government forces in northern Mali. Refugees are living in makeshift settlements along the border, exposed to the sun and wind by day, and cold at night. UNHCR has started distributing relief assistance and is planning to open camps in safer areas further away from the border. UNHCR's Helene Caux met with some the refugees who all expressed their desire to return to their country once peace prevails.

Malian refugees flee for safety to Niger

Malians still fleeing to Niger

Malian refugees continue to arrive in Niger, fleeing fighting and general insecurity and political instability in their country. At the Mangaizé refugee site in northern Niger, some 3,000 refugees live in difficult conditions, bearing soaring temperatures during the day and wondering when they will be able to return home. The scarce water and food resources in the arid Sahel country also present a huge challenge for the refugees and local communities. More than 40,000 Malians have found refuge in Niger since January, when fighting erupted between a rebel Tuareg movement and Malian government forces. More than 160,000 Malians have arrived in Niger, Burkina Faso and Mauritania, while 133,000 are displaced within their country. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres visited Niger, including Mangaizé, in early May with World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin to help focus world attention on the crisis and to seek help for the displaced.

Malians still fleeing to Niger

Barbara Hendricks visits Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

UNHCR Honorary Lifetime Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendricks met with Malian refugees in Damba Camp on July 6, 2012, in northern Burkina Faso. The acclaimed soprano is using the visit to highlight the plight of tens of thousands of refugees who have fled from conflict in their country this year and are living in camps or settlements in neighbouring countries. As of early July, more than 198,000 Malians had fled to Mauritania (88,825), Burkina Faso (65,009) and Niger (44,987). At least 160,000 were estimated to be displaced within Mali, most in the north.

Barbara Hendricks visits Malian refugees in Burkina Faso

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.