“We just want to go home”

May 28, 2012

By Joe Penney

By the time the aid workers arrive at Mbera refugee camp at 7am after crisscrossing a 15 km (9 mile) trail through sand dunes from the adjacent town in a convoy of white Land Cruisers, Malian refugee and mother Zeinab Mint Hama has already been up for at least an hour.

As she did back home in Lere, Mali, Zeinab starts her days early to avoid the blazing midday Saharan sun, with temperature reaching up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). She and the 64,000 other Malians who have fled violence in their home country to settle temporarily at Mbera, a United Nations-run camp about 40 km (25 m) from the Malian border in neighboring Mauritania, are persevering to establish a sense of normalcy to their new lives.


Mbera itself functions like a fairly normal Saharan city: there are schools, a butcher, hairdressers, lots of tea and even the odd electric guitar. Traditionally nomadic peoples, many of the Tuaregs and Berabiche Arab tribes who left Mali for Mbera are accustomed to a life of minimal material comfort and establishing their homes under tents built from available materials. But events in Mali have provided a new challenge: political instability and violence.

Since Tuareg and Salafist rebels began their campaign in January 2012 for an independent state called Azawad, in Northern Mali, more than 320,000 people have fled their homes and about half of them have sought asylum in refugee camps in neighboring Sahelian states such as Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria, according to UN statistics. Mbera is the largest such camp.

However, for many older refugees at Mbera escaping violence is nothing new. A Tuareg uprising in the early 1990s and subsequent Malian state crackdown led many to flee their homes and live in neighboring states. Asked why she fled from her home in Lere, Mali, 34-year-old Timal Bara explained, “it’s because we remember what happened in ’92”—when Malian militia groups called Ganda Koy roamed the countryside targeting Tuaregs.

A key missing demographic from the camp is young men, who in many cases have stayed behind either to look after belongings in Mali or fight with the rebel groups. Women and children form the majority of Mbera’s residents.

The more politically inclined younger generation pin their hopes on an independent Azawad. But for those a bit older who witnessed the negative effects of violence in past decades, the struggle to get by takes precedence. The words of Mohamed Iselkou, a 45-year-old farmer and businessman from Timbuktu, described the sentiments of many in Mbera: “We just want to go home.”

(View a slideshow of images here)

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