Songs of Freedom and Exile

Forced to flee their homes, a Tuareg singer and her band reflect on their identity and self-determination.

Fatimata Oumarr is the lead singer of the internationally-acclaimed Tuareg band Tartit. She fled from her home with her husband in Timbuktu along with 100,000 other Tuareg refugees when the Salafist group Ansar Dine seized control of northern Mali in March 2012.

Now Fatimata’s home is a camp on the outskirts of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso and her work and talent has become her means of resistance.

Filmed in late 2012 and early 2013, Songs of Freedom and Exile follows Fatimata as she and the band rehearse their repertoire – the lyrics of the songs they perform at a desert concert in Morocco reflect on the theme of Tuareg identity and self-determination.

When not on stage, Fatimata carries out adminstrative duties as spokeswoman for the women and children of the refugee camps, thousands of whom keep arriving every week. When the French invaded Mali in February 2013, the initial hope that the situation would be resolved and the Tuareg could return home fades slowly. Fatimata, her band and the other refugees can only sit and wait. “We are nomads” she says. “Being nomad, being Tuareg is all about freedom”. 


General elections meant to pave the way for peace and reconciliation among all Malians were held in Mali 2013.  However, despite the promises of Malian elected President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and a UN call for an inclusive national dialogue to be held, no advances have yet been made.

The authorities of Mali have dismissed the mediation of Burkina Faso and have asked Algeria to take over as a mediator in the crisis.

As of May 2014, no dialogue has started. 

Fatimata Oumarr is still a refugee in Burkina Faso and in total an estimated 170,000 civilians from Northern Mali remain scattered in Mali’s neighbouring countries.


By Marlene Rabaud and Arnaud Zajtman

We first met Fatimata in 2006 at a music festival near Timbuktu, in Northern Mali. The region was then peaceful and the country was praised as an example of genuine democracy where all inter-ethnic tensions were solved with wisdom and peaceful ways.

Fatimata was the lead singer of her band Tartit. The band had been created in the early nineties in a refugee camp where she had been forced to live because of a previous Tuareg uprising.

We knew Fatimata by her nickname “Disco” and she came across as a strong woman. She was involved in the organisation of the annual music festival and was involved in various workshops to raise awareness on the lack of schools and health centres for Tuareg people in the desert.

When a new Tuareg uprising erupted in Mali in 2012, leading to the implementation of Shariah law and to a complete ban on music in northern Mali, we immediately wondered about the whereabouts of “Disco” and her band Tartit.

We asked around and heard she was involved in two very important tasks: she was trying to get her band back together and she was also the committed refugee leader of a camp in the outskirts of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

The first challenge of the film was to get this balance across. We wanted to represent the personal objectives of “Disco” the artist, as well as the larger community objectives of Fatimata, the refugee camp’s leader.

The other challenge was the fact that the situation in Mali was evolving quickly and we felt the need to be with Fatimata during the main stages of this evolution. 

We began filming Fatimata and her group at a festival in Morocco in 2012, shortly after hardline groups had taken control of Northern Mali, imposing Shariah law there. Tartit were affected and puzzled by the music ban.

However, to our surprise, some of them, like Fatimata, did not flee Mali because of the ban, but because of anti-Tuareg violence committed by members of other Malian communities.

Being Tuareg, like the rebels, made them feel unwelcome in Mali and they fled. Currently, almost 200,000 Tuareg are still waiting for a political dialogue to take place in Mali, in order for them to go back home.

One of the biggest challenges in making the film was that “Disco” or Fatimata, as she prefers to be called since she is involved in helping the refugees rather than in playing music, is a very strong character. As filmmakers, following her for several weeks, we had to make sure she understood what we were doing and did not get tired or impatient with us. We think she did.

This film gave us a fascinating insight into the Tuareg culture and the ethnic tension that exists in Mali. We believe that this ethnic divide should be addressed as part of a political dialogue but, at the moment, the authorities in Mali have been preoccupied in trying to organise an election in July. The Malian authorities are desperate to provide the country with an elected government and thus make it a legitimate partner of the donor countries, which have pledged more than $4bn in aid once a legitimate government is in place. Legitimacy is surely important but so are the deep rooted causes of the war. These are the problems that affect the Tuareg minority. However those are yet to be addressed.