Escape from Mali's turmoil

Tuaregs and Arabs run from their own national army as French and Malian forces drive out rebels from country's north.

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    There is no let-up in the exodus from the north of Mali where French and Malian troops are battling rebels.

    Thousands of Malians have become refugees since France began military operations in the north of the country against rebel groups such as the al-Qaeda-allied Ansar al-Dine and the Movement for Unity and Jihad (MUJAO).

    Most are fleeing to neighbouring countries already struggling to provide earlier waves of refugees with food and water. At least 800 refugees cross over to Mauritania daily, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.

    They are joining already overcrowded camps.

    The sprawling Mbera refugee camp on the border of Mauritania and Mali is now home to 55,000 people. It is the biggest camp for Malian refugees in the region.

    Finding safety

    At the centre of the camp on the Mali-Mauritania border, newly arrived refugees have settled in the open as they wait to be registered and allocated tents.

    It is the first time they have felt safe in some time.

    I found 60-year-old Abubakar Ag Mowlud sitting with two of his daughters in the open, a small plastic sheet their only protection against the falling rain.

    Abubakar, a Muslim religious leader, fled Lere, a town 80km from the border. After Timbuktu, Lere is the second biggest city in northwestern Mali.

    "Safety is all we wanted. We left Lere immediately the fighting begun and didn't stop till we crossed the border," Abubakar told me.

    Most of the refugees I met were too tired and worried about their relatives back home to celebrate their escape from the turmoil.

    They are mainly made up of the people of the desert  -Tuaregs and Arabs who are used to roaming with their livestock, their only source of livelihood. Some of them said they abandoned their livestock as they fled for their lives.

    And as the French and Malian troops continue to retake the rapidly emptying north from the rebels, reports of abuses against civilians are emerging.

    Race and ethnicity

    The refugees say they are being targeted because of their race and ethnicity.

    "We know the Malian army: it doesn't do anything but kill unarmed people. They target people because of their skin colour and ethnic group. They don't care if they're carrying a weapon or they're in any armed group," Sidi Ahmed Ag Ahmed Said.

    So, as Mali's black African people - mainly from the Songhai tribe - cheer the French and Malian troops as they retake towns from the rebels, Tuareg and Arabs are running from their own national army.

    At the Mberra camp, the refugees have little access to clean water, health care and other  services.

    The rapidly increasing number of refugees is a challenge for the few aid agencies here. They say they urgently need help to provide accommodation and food for all the refugees.


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