MENTAO CAMP, Burkina Faso, March 19 (UNHCR) – Aicha is suffering: she is far from her home in the central Malian district of Mopti and she has caught a pulmonary infection, which is compounded by the harmattan, the dusty trade wind that sweeps from the Sahara to the Atlantic coast from November to March.
The 45-year-old and her four children arrived in Mentao Refugee Camp in north-west Burkina Faso less than two weeks after the start on January 11 of the French military intervention in Mali to push back anti-government militants.
At first, the fast-evolving situation in Mali raised hopes that many displaced people would be able to go back to their homes soon. But the reality is that thousands have since fled to neighbouring countries – mainly Burkina Faso and Mauritania – to escape the fighting or from fear of reprisals. They need help.
In Burkina Faso, many of those who have fled across the border are ethnic Tuareg and Arab women and children, like Aicha and her young. Their menfolk are staying behind to take care of their cattle, indicating that people are increasingly fleeing out of desperation.
New arrivals are met at the border by mobile teams from UNHCR or its partners, and transported to Mentao or Goudebou refugee camps, where they receive assistance, such as hot meals upon arrival and traditional shelter kits, and are individually registered. More than 6,000 have arrived since the French intervention in January.
Aicha's journey to Mentao was not so straightforward. She had resisted earlier chances to flee from her central Mali village, Boni, despite the deteriorating social and economic situation. She felt she had too much to lose.
"We are simple people, all we have is our animals and our friends, nothing else, nothing more," Aicha said of her life. But over the past year, things became even harder as war engulfed the country and rebels took over the north and much of the centre of the country. "Our worst fears have now become reality. We left our animals and our friends. We feel we have only fear, no more life," she said, explaining her situation.
The developments in Mali last year took thousands of farming folk like Aicha and her husband by surprise, although inequality between the sub-Saharan people of the south and the Tuareg and Arabs of the north had led to separatist conflict in 1990 and 2007. Most of Aicha's Arab relatives fled to Burkina Faso or Mauritania soon after the fighting first erupted between government soldiers and Tuareg rebels in January last year.
The victorious Tuareg rebels were followed by militants, who imposed strict Islamic law in areas under their control in the north and centre, including Boni. Aicha was not used to such an austere lifestyle, such as having to wear a veil.
"Life was difficult in 2012, but it was bearable," she noted. "I would wake up and prepare food for my children before they went out to look after our livestock. I would spend time with my friends when my husband went to Boni to sell some animals. It was correct."
In January, the fighting swung back to the region as the French-backed Malian army advanced north against the militants. Aicha could hear the sounds of war rumbling closer and decided she must flee to save her children.
Other villagers were thinking the same and the men clubbed together to hire a truck to take their wives and children to nearby northern Burkina Faso and then on to Mentao, a camp of 11,000 located about 80 kilometres from the border. Some of the villagers of Boni already had relatives there.
But instead of taking them to Mentao, the drivers duped the group of 20 women and children, leaving them at a village 60kms short of their destination after a long and uncomfortable journey without food and water. Luckily, the locals took pity on the refugees and took them by donkey to Mentao.
In response to the spike in new arrivals, UNHCR staff based in the nearby town of Djibo opened a transit centre where refugees stay for two days in newly erected tents (for up to 500 people) before being moved to the camps. More latrines and bathing facilities were built in the transit centre to cope with the extra population.
Aicha and her group, after being stopped by police near Mentao, were taken by UNHCR protection staff to this transit centre, where they were interviewed and registered. "This is a particularly important time for those in categories regarded as most vulnerable, such as female-headed households, said UNHCR Protection Officer Euphrasie Oubda. "They can tell us about things like health problems and trauma and then we can give them the proper care," either directly or through humanitarian aid partners.
Aicha was then moved to Mentao Camp and her own space, where she receives regular visits from UNHCR community services staff. After a week there she felt safe but missed home. There is a small silver living: her four children will go to school for the first time.
"My oldest son, who is 10, has never been to school: he has been a shepherd most of his life," she told visitors. "Although life in Mentao has been better than I thought, life as a refugee is still not a correct life such as the one I had back home," she added, poignantly.
By Hugo Reichenberger in Mentao Camp, Burkina Faso