“Before, we were joyous and made our songs with the sand. Then the bandits came with the guns and chased us from our land.”
There is unmistakable sadness in the words spoken by Al Husseini Ag, a Tuareg pastoralist from the lands surrounding Tessalit, a city close to Mali’s border with Algeria. After those he refers to as “the bandits” gained control of the region in March, taking his livestock with them, he fled to the capital city of Bamako with more than 50 other nomad families for fear of death.
He is now among the tens of thousands of people in Bamako displaced by the conflict in Mali’s northern territories.
After rebel groups took over much of northern Mali, following a military coup against Malian President Amadou Toumani Touré in March, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 450,000 people have left the region. Former residents of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao, cities now under the occupation of Islamists linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other hardline groups, comprise the bulk of those displaced.
More than 265,000 travelled to refugee camps in Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso, while 185,800 more have been internally displaced.
Many of the displaced live with extended families and friends. Others live under whatever shelter they can find. The influx of people is exacerbating an already rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation as food prices continue to rise and health services decline. Many international aid organisations have suspended their activities in the north due to security risks, making the most at-risk displaced populations hard to reach.
Those displaced say they are in need of adequate shelter, food and clean water. They complain that they cannot find work. Young people want to study but can’t afford private education. Light-skinned Tuaregs are fearful of being associated with the MNLA, a Tuareg rebel group, and feel discriminated against.
Yet above all, they miss their homes and their way of life.
Al Husseini says that city life is foreign to him and he is afraid of to wander the streets of Bamako. He explains that where he comes from, there are no houses. He relied on trees and animal skins to provide shelter. His sense of home was anchored in his familiarity of the land, trees and animals. Home was where music was made. Home was freedom of movement.
“Now we are no longer happy. Before, we were joyous. We had music. Now we don’t have anything.”