On September 10, 2012 Yeah Samake, the mayor of Ouéléssébougou in Mali, and I visited the Mintao Refugee Camp located in the northern Burkina Faso town of Djibo. We left the capital city of Ouagadougou early that morning, traveling a distance of over 150 miles on potholed roads, arriving at the camp four hours later. We passed several overloaded trucks along the way carrying precious food supplies to the destitute Diaspora that had succumbed to the washed out ruts in the road. The Mintao Camp houses 15,000 refugees who fled from Mali’s northern towns of Timbuktu and Gao. Reportedly there are more than 60,000 refugees in Burkina Faso, of which sixty percent are children. The camps were established by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) which has been coping with the burgeoning influx of people fleeing from the conflicted areas.
The camp is divided into three sections due to the on-going clashes between supporters of a Malian unity government, and those associated with the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) separatist movement, seeking independence over half the country’s territory. I had the opportunity to meet with several Tuareg and Arab elders to discuss the issues in northern Mali, and their immediate concerns in the camp. They noted there was a shortage of tents suitable for the rainy season coming up, a lack of drinking water, insufficient food rations, inadequate toilets and showers, and classroom facilities for the large population of children.
The elders emphatically stated they have been abandoned. They are humiliated, and at the mercy of the harsh conditions in the camp. Many had fled their homes in January 2012, after fighting broke out between the Malian military and Tuareg rebels associated with Ansar Dine (Defenders of the Faith) Islamists. Joining them were al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) from Algeria, Boko Haram from Nigeria and al-Shabaab from Somalia; Pakistani and Afghan fighters who were also infiltrating the northern region, adding to the instability. The radical Islamists pressed to institute Sharia, the brutal Islamic law. In Taliban style, they engaged in numerous atrocities against the people, including rapes, public floggings and amputations. They also destroyed 13th century artifacts, libraries and mausoleums; severely damaged the 15th Century Sidi Yahya mosque in Timbuktu. The Mintao encampment stretched out several miles across the barren plain. Some tents appeared to be able to withstand inclement weather, while others appeared more temporary.
Laundry was strung out everywhere to dry. Food supplies were protected inside the tents, and out of sight. Under a nearby tree there were girls singing, and boys playing checkers; in the distance children were playing soccer. I was pleasantly surprised how well kept the children looked; many giggling and enjoying each other’s company, oblivious to their parent’s plight. Yeah Samake introduced me to a school teacher, a volunteer from a nearby village, who desperately asked for basic school supplies and books.
A person named Mohamed introduced himself as the spokesman for the Tuareg and Arab elders, who were waiting in a tented reception area. The men sat cross-legged on the carpet, looking suspicious and stern. Several younger men soon joined the gathering. Yeah told the elders of my background as a former U. S. diplomat, with a long standing interest in Africa. Also that I was writing a story about my visit to the refugee camp, so decision makers in the U. S. would better understand the plight of the displaced Malians. Believing I might have some influence they began to talk openly. Most had traveled over 150 miles with their families, bringing with them some belongings and livestock; a few had camels to transport their possessions. Most had escaped by car, bus, truck or on foot just to reach safety.
Recording their remarks at first created some apprehension, but soon they all wanted to be on record expressing their concerns. Interpreting for me, Yeah said they emphasized the need for upgrades to the conditions in the camp, and were adamant about more food rations to survive—receiving only 13 kg of grain per month to sustain them. They also did not want to stay in the camp any longer, but feared for their safety if they were to go home, since they would be targeted by the Islamists. The Malian government needed to marginalize the Islamists, and remove the jihadis that infiltrated the region, before they felt safe going home.
The Arab Spring in North Africa caused the destabilization of Mali. Tuareg tribesmen had gone to Libya looking for work. With few options they enlisted in the army. After the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi these Tuareg fighters came back with large caches of arms–greater than were in the hands of the Malian military. President Amadou Toure did not support the Malian military with the necessary arms and supplies needed to control the northern region; ultimately retreated after losing many soldiers. As a result the Islamists were able to take over a region the size of France. In the events that followed thousands of Malians fled to neighboring countries. There was no endgame plan to protect the armaments from leaving Libya, which were now in the hands of al-Qaeda linked organizations across the vast Sahel.
The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has been slow to act since the mutiny that took place on March 21, 2012. The Resolution 2056 adopted in July 2012 did not empower the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to help underpin Mali with military support, in order to subdue the radical Islamists and jihadis. The Arab Spring has taken its toll on this fledgling democracy. Humanitarian aid that has been provided is like putting a Band-Aid on a puncture wound. The displaced Malians should not have to languish in the refugee camps. It is time that the United States takes the lead at the United Nations gathering next week, and develops a plan to get the Malian Diaspora back home, and establish stability to the country.