Côte d'Ivoire

Returnees and refugees from Côte d'Ivoire find a safe haven in Mali

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by Jessica Barry in Mali
More than one million people are estimated to have been displaced so far as a result of the conflict that erupted in Côte d'Ivoire last September -- some have been displaced within the country, but many have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, such as Mali.

Two million Malians live in Côte d'Ivoire, the children and grandchildren of émigrés who left their native land in search of a better life and economic prosperity decades ago. According to official figures, more than 50,000 of them have fled back to their homeland since the conflict broke out, seeking shelter with relatives in their ancestral villages. The actual number is considerably higher.

Fifteen thousand of the returnees have made the journey in convoys of buses hired by the Malian embassy in Abidjan. Travelling for safety along a circuitous route through Ghana and Burkina Faso, the drivers make their first stop after crossing into Mali at the town of Sikasso.

One recent afternoon, 764 exhausted returnees, mostly women and children, arrived in 10 overcrowded vehicles after a gruelling, 11-day journey. Resting in the shade of orange canvas tarpaulins on the perimeter of a dusty sports ground, they spoke of harassment and extortion at flying checkpoints along the way, of hunger and sickness and sleepless nights looking after fractious, crying children; of boiling daytime temperatures, and of constant fear of attack by armed groups.

In Sikasso, the convoys are met by officials from the authorities' civil protection service and by local Red Cross volunteers who hand out hot meals or sandwiches before the travellers set off again on the last, five-hour leg of their journey along a potholed highway to Bamako.

In the capital, too, it is the Red Cross that welcomes the returnees with food and first aid at the giant Omnisport stadium, which has been turned into a reception centre. In charge are the civil protection service and the Mali Red Cross, whose volunteers ensure that the place is kept clean and that the returnees are fed during the one or two days they stay there before leaving for their home villages.

The centre's running costs are covered with money donated from various sources, including the Spanish Red Cross, which has also helped its Malian counterpart to erect water tanks near the entrance to stadium.

Returning to villages that their forefathers left generations ago, and to distant cousins whom they have never met, will no doubt make integration into the local community a long process for the returnees. But it will not be easy either for their hosts, many of whom are already feeling the financial strain of having extra, unplanned-for mouths to feed, perhaps for a very long time.

Not all the Malians fleeing Côte d'Ivoire have left the country on organized convoys. Thousands have made their own way out.

Fourteen-year-old Abou Coulibaly and his elder brother were at school in Man, a town in the west of Côte d'Ivoire, when it fell into rebel hands last year. "We had to flee for our lives," he remarks during a conversation at the Omnisport camp.

"It was too dangerous even to go home to our village, and I have lost all contact with my parents. They don't even know if I am still alive," he says.

After two months, much of it walking through the bush, Abou and his brother arrived in Mali in early February and made their way to Bamako. "It was a terrible journey to get here," he says in a small voice. "I was very frightened. At one point I got ill, and was beaten by people who wanted money. But we had nothing to give them."

In recent days, Abou has started going to a school near the sports centre, an experience he enjoys. When he is not there he stays in the stadium making strong black tea for official visitors, using a tiny blue teapot and a charcoal brazier. "I have an uncle who lives in Mali, but I don't know his address," he says wistfully, poking at the coals in the brazier with a pair of tongs to make them glow. "If someone could find him, I could go there to stay. The Red Cross is trying, but they haven't had any luck so far."

Compared with the tens of thousands of Malians who have fled back to their homeland, the number of Ivorian, Burkinabe and other refugees who have entered the country since the start of the fighting is minimal, numbering in the low hundreds. But their plight is no less acute than that of the returnees.

Thirty-five kilometres down a bumpy laterite road from the town of Bougouni, in the southwestern Sikasso region lies Faragouaran, a camp set up by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1998 for Liberian and Sierra Leonian refugees. When peace returned to those countries most of them left camp. Recently, though, it has been turned into a transit centre for Ivorian refugees and other asylum seekers entering Mali from Côte d'Ivoire.

Mariame Bakayoko, a 38-year-old mother of six, has been living in Faragouaran since January this year. "This is my house," she says in beautiful French as she shows a visitor around, pointing to one of many doors in a long, barrack-type building near the camp's perimeter.

Inside, the four-metre-square room is furnished with a single foam mattress and a thin mat. Hanging from hooks in the wall are a few bags of clothes, and against one wall stands a neatly stacked pile of crockery. Although it seems impossibly small for seven people, Mariame is adamant that it is better than the tent which was the family's previous home in the Louloumi camp outside Sikasso, to which she and her children were sent by the local authorities when they first arrived in Mali.

"The only thing that is a problem here is the food" Mariame declares, as others who have gathered around to listen to the conversation nod in agreement. "We receive only maize, and not enough of that," says another women. "We have to sell some of our ration to buy the ingredients for a sauce to make the maize edible," says a third.

Apart from the food, people complain that the camp is too isolated and lacks amenities. Others talk of boredom and of longing to have something to read. One camp resident gives geography lessons from a dog-eared textbook to help both himself and the other camp residents pass the time.

Although Faragouaran and Louloumi camps are home to only a few hundred refugees at present, this could quickly change if the war in Côte d'Ivoire intensifies.

The UN and other agencies, including the Mali Red Cross, are already making contingency plans. A second site, close to Louloumi, capable of accommodating 20,000 people has already been identified. At Faragouaran, the UNHCR has erected dozens of green canvas tents to supplement the existing barrack-style accommodation. If the situation worsens in Côte d'Ivoire, which many local people fear it will, both the vast new site behind Louloumi, and the extra tents at Faragouaran might soon be needed.