Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (UNHCR's World) - Mauritania: A long way from anywhere

Refugees Magazine, 1 June 1996

Working in one of the most remote and hottest places on earth teaches one to enjoy the small things in life, says Field Officer Olivier Delarue.

By Olivier Delarue
UNHCR Field Officer Bassikounou, Mauritania

It is June 4, 1996, and we're in the eastern Mauritanian desert at Bassikounou and M'Berra camps, where there are 29,883 Malian refugees.

The torrid season is in full sway, with temperatures easily topping 45 degrees Celsius in the shade. Today, UNHCR has scheduled a voluntary repatriation operation to help the Malian refugees to return to the locations of their choice in Mali.

Already shimmering in the sun, the white, covered lorries drive into Bassikounou camp. It is 6:15 a.m. We have to get the refugees into the trucks where, yesterday, they had loaded their belongings and their repatriation allowance. For the past several weeks, these future returnees have talked of nothing but their home country, the coming rainy season, the rising Niger River that they are going to see again after five years in exile in the Mauritanian desert.

Several old Tuareg women, their faces seamed by sun and wind, gaze for the last time at this camp, where so many things have happened. It is where they learned for the first time how to adapt to a total lack of privacy, typical of a huge camp; where they discovered market gardening, sewing and dyeing skills; where the women have had to forsake ancestral traditions that forbid them to appear in public in order to go to the distribution centres for their monthly rations.

The women, who come from the Timbuktu region of Mali, bordering on the Sahara, wonder what these changes will mean upon their return home.

An old chief approaches me to express his emotion and to extract my promise to visit him in his village of Tin-aicha. Last year we visited his village as soon as the guns were silenced after five years of fighting, and thoughts turned to going back. Since then, more than 12,000 refugees have repatriated under UNHCR's care.

What a strange feeling, to watch the departure of these refugees, whose joy and suffering we have shared for almost three years. This fleeting relationship brought together UNHCR staff from many distant lands and these nomads of the "great desert," who shared experiences that will live on in the memories of each one of them.

The 11-truck convoy, carrying a total of 418 refugees, rattles slowly off toward the Malian border, 60 kms away. UNHCR vehicles lead the convoy to ensure that nothing goes wrong until they arrive at Léré, where they will be met by UNHCR colleagues who will take over for the journey in Malian territory. The remaining refugees at the camp watch their compatriots disappear into the distance, and think about the approaching day when they too will return home.

8:00 hours: The convoy is gone and it's time for me to go to the monthly food distribution that began three days ago. We will parcel out to the refugees a total of 520 tons of foodstuffs. For the past several months we have been struggling relentlessly to make sure that the food is properly handed out to the refugees. Many cases of malnutrition have been detected in the camps, especially following delays in distribution. The permanent presence of UNHCR and World Food Programme officers helps to keep fraud to a minimum. The distribution is now on an individual basis and in recent months the women have been coming in ever increasing numbers to receive the family ration. This is an encouraging sign because we know that in these traditional cultures, women are in charge of managing the household and feeding the family. The food will go where it is supposed to go.

Some families have been placed under special supervision after medical teams found a number of vulnerable cases. Tinitini is an example of this. She is a tiny 10-year-old girl who was living with her grandmother and her little brother. She weighed a mere 11 kg., because her grandmother was unable to supervise their diet properly. Goats had eaten part of their rations. Tinitini was moved to the nutritional recuperation facility in M'Berra camp (with 15,000 refugees). There she began to gain weight, and now is over 15 kg. Her frail little arms are beginning to take shape and Tinitini's smile, which never abandoned her not even in the most difficult moments shows her delight at being on the mend. The tribal solidarity that existed at home in Mali has been eroded in exile, with entire tribes having been scattered across Algeria, Burkina Faso and Mauritania. Tinitini's parents are refugees in Algeria.

10:00 hours: Golf Bravo Delta Juliet, the small UNHCR-chartered plane that is our weekly link with Nouakchott, 1,300 kms away, calls for the latest weather report from Bassikounou. Fortunately, there is no sandstorm today. Everything is ready for the landing.

10:30 hours: A rumble is heard in the distance and suddenly the plane appears out of the midst of a heat mirage. Moments later, the Canadian pilots deliver their passengers, already suffering from the overheated cabin. The plane takes off straight away: one spends the least possible time in Bassikounou! Radio checkpoints for the return route have been carefully established; there is nothing but desert between Bassikounou and Nouakchott. We storm the "mailman" distributing the just-delivered mail. We all want to find out about new instructions from Nouakchott and from Geneva, and especially to get our personal mail. Letters from home are vital in overcoming the isolation and hardship of Bassikounou.

12:30 hours: The Prefect of Bassikounou, representing the Mauritanian administration, calls me to discuss the ration card controls in force in the camps. He wants to avoid possible outbreaks of cheating by discontented refugees. The support and the action of the local authorities are essential for our daily operations and we work closely and as transparently as possible with them. This builds mutual trust. Thanks to these open contacts, we were able to jointly carry out a rigorous new census in April 1995.

14:00 hours: It is more than 55 degrees Celsius in the sun, time to beat a retreat to the UNHCR base, where there awaits the absolute height of luxury an air-conditioned room. Finally I can read the mail and draft the regular reports that are part of my duties. This is also the time for contacting Nouakchott by radio telex, so I can take stock of the day's activites with Michel Gaudé, the chargé de mission. These links are essential to the good management of the programme, since they allow for information to be exchanged and any problems that arise to be solved immediately.

17:00 hours: We are interviewing refugees who want to return voluntarily to Mali. It is a solemn moment when the head of the family states his wish to return to his country, which he left five years ago. He fills out the return form and is told the next departure date. Each week a convoy travels to Mali.

19:00 hours: The sun, as enormous as it is everywhere in Africa, is about to disappear behind the three lone palm trees of Bassikounou. Suddenly the temperature drops and gives way to a light, delicious breeze, which eases the stinging heat of the day. Dinner with the three UNHCR and WFP colleagues is waiting. This is the moment to relax and recover physically from a very intense day.

21:00 hours: A radio call: our radio operator at M'Berra camp has just been alerted by the nurses at the dispensary. A woman is about to give birth but the baby is not coming out right. The medic in charge from our NGO partner is immediately called by walkie-talkie and gets ready to travel by night to M'Berra, 15 kms away. I must organize and locate, at this late hour, the members of the mandatory armed escort.

22:00 hours: A blanket of silence falls over this strange and fascinating world. Tomorrow will bring more unforeseen challenges.

Source: Refugees Magazine Issue 104 (1996)