Anger in refugee camp ahead of Mali vote

Refugees on Mauritanian border with Mali are angry as they have yet to get IDs ahead of crucial elections.

At the Mberra refugee camp near Mauritanian border with Mali, Omaro and his tribesmen are angry and frustrated.

They are Arabs from the region of Timbuktu and want to vote and support the peace process that has recently been launched.

However, they say the authorities in Bamako have lied to them and failed to issue ID cards without which they cannot vote.

Omaro, 56, believes there’s a secret hand at work to neutralise his ethnic group and make them nonexistent with regards to any political distribution of power in the country.

But it is not just the Arabs who are complaining about failure to provide them with IDs – the Tuaregs are also saying they haven’t received the cards. And there are those who are telling Omaro to rather view the situation from a broader perspective.

The people of Northern Mali, both Tuareg and Arab, are deeply divided over the election and the peace process that paved the way for it.

These are the victims of a year and a half of war and political chaos in the country. They came from all across the north in particular because that’s where the fighting was centred.

Their number is estimated at 71,000, according to the latest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures.

A very large number of them, who are not politically affiliated, simply view Mali as an evil which is unnecessary to support and live with.

So, they didn’t even bother to register for the elections.

Poor logistics

Out of the estimated 71,000 refugees in the camp, only 11,000 have registered their names and accepted to be issued with IDs in preparation for the election.

Some of those who have registered told Al Jazeera that their real motive is to acquire Malian national ID cards that would hopefully facilitate their movement across the border and within Mali and help them revisit their families back home.

So, between aversion to register and failure to provide voter cards, the election in the camp is expected to be more noise than real action.

Even logistically, the obstacles are adding to the difficulties.

The camp is all but cut off from civilisation.

It’s located on a forlorn hillock amid the African savanna of south Mauritania several hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest real city on both he Malian and the Mauritanian side of the border.

The organisers of the election have decided to set up voting centres in Bassiknou, a town located 18km away from the camp.

On Sunday, the refugees will have to travel to the said town to cast their ballot.

They are telling us of their utter bewilderment at the decision.

The organisers promised to transport them to the voting centres. But in view of the limitations of logistics they don’t believe that thousands of people can be moved back and forth in one day between the camp and the town.

Omaro says that “even if they deliver our cards tomorrow, we are not going to vote anywhere else but here in the camp”.

If the few who registered and are now equipped with the needed IDs refuse to move to Bassiknou to cast their vote, then there will be no election here, simply.

Demand for autonomy

Among the majority of these refugees, politics is a deceitful, venomous game. When a small number of youths held a rally outside the camp in support of a black candidate from southern Mali, the majority of the refugees saw it as an untoward behaviour.

Election to the majority here means accepting to give up on the demand for autonomy and to disarm the northern rebels. It means going back under the oppressive control of the centre of power in the capital, Bamako, several other years of economic and political marginalisation in the north.

It’s important to note that on the contrary, the rebel leadership sees the political process and the election as their only escape from an inevitable military confrontation with the Malian army and its international backers including France.

The rebels don’t see any chance to win that war.

They have lost city after city, and region after region in the north. The Malian army reached the town of Anefis a little more than 100km away from the last rebel stronghold of Kidal.

Soon after, the rebels accepted to sign a ceasefire deal to start a political process that included the organising of elections and the setting up of a joint mechanism to move on with final status negotiations.

But if the rebels look forward in respect to the situation, the average people in the north look back and remember the atrocities they say they were subjected to over the years since Mali got independence in 1960.

And they don’t need to remember where they are now.

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