When the armed conflict in Mali flared up in 2012, many people ended up in the middle of the contending parties. Alhader Ag Azar was one of many who took his entire family and fled to the neighbouring country Burkina Faso. He appreciates the safety in the refugee camp, but misses the ability to move around freely.
“The escape from Mali was very long and exhausting. We paid a man a lot of money to drive the family's women and children 80 km to the border in his car. At the same time, us men were on foot with the sheep, goats and cows,” says 72 year old Alhader, as he sits on a soft rug on the middle of the floor in his large tent in the refugee camp Goudebo in northern Burkina Faso. The rest of the family is sitting and lying around him: his wife Asseytou Wallet Otkel, nine children and a couple of grandchildren.
Several courses of events resulted in the turbulent situation, he explains. First the revolt in the north, the coup d'état and then the fighting between Islamist independendists and the military, in which Tuaregs also became affected. It was when his daughter's husband was killed that they decided to leave, before it was too late.
After one year in the refugee camp Ferrerio in northern Burkina Faso, they were moved here to Goudebo, outside the city Dori, fifty kilometres from the border to Niger. The drought and lack of pasturage has forced him to send his animals home to Mali again, where a shepherd now gets paid to take care of them.
As most Tuaregs, Alhader owns livestock, the animals are their “bank account,” he explains. But in contrast to many others, his family has not lived a nomadic life in Mali. He has worked as a compulsory school teacher in his home village in the Gao province, up until retirement five years ago. The fact that there is a school in the camp is something he particularly appreciates, as many children have never had the opportunity of education in the past.
“Most Tuaregs are hostile towards schools. They do not see the value of education, but are scared that the children will lose their roots and culture. Some believe that if you teach children French, then they will lose their religion.”
The nomads' long lifestyle in close harmony with nature has taught them to adapt to the forces of weather. Their traditional shelter protect them against seasonal variations and are easy to move. When the refugees arrive at the camp, they receive material for shelter that are distributed by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), whose contribution is funded by Sida among others. The material and design of the tents have been prepared in dialogue with the refugees, in order to suit their needs.
“Norwegian Refugee Council is our best collaboration partner here in the camp, together with the organisation that is responsible for safety of course,” he says with a laugh and points to a man in a uniform outside the tent opening.
The nights in the Sahel region can be very cold in January, even if the temperature goes well above 30 degrees during the daytime. The strong rays of sun are also utilised in the solar collector connected to a large pan, which the family has received and uses for cooking.
The food which is distributed in the camp is good, but not sufficient according to Alhader. 12 kg per person and month is the normal World Food Programme ration – which makes two meals a day for Alhaders family. The entire ration was previously distributed as food, but after many people sold parts of it to purchase other necessities, the refugees together with the camp administration decided to distribute half as food items, and half as money for making purchases.
“The reason we are not suffering is because many of us have animals back in Mali, which we can return and get if necessary. But also because us Tuaregs respect solidarity very highly. If my neighbour doesn’t have food, I share what I have with him, and if his children want to join our meal, they are always welcome.”
At present the crisis in Mali does not appear to be close to changing for the better, and consequently the refugee situation can be long-term.
“There are refugees here in the camp who will never return to Mali; some of the ones you see, they were already here when I previously came here as a refugee, 1994-1997.”
His greatest desire is to travel back home again, but the return must be conditional:
“There must be peace, with a peace agreement in place, but also the conditions that enable us to return. Houses, wells, schools, health centres – everything must be rebuilt again, only then can we return to our former life,” concludes Alhader.