An al-Qaeda takeover in northern Mali has sparked an exodus of half a million people. Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum meets some of them as they cross the border to Mauritania.
Around 100,000 refugees have already turned to Mali’s neighbour, Mauritania, and its rapidly swelling refugee camp, Mbera, a few hours from the border.
They are fleeing fighting between armed groups and terror being administered by al-Qaeda and its allies in and around Timbuktu. Following a failed Tuareg rebellion earlier this year, Islamists have seized control of the northern areas in Mali.
At Mbera, 20 per cent of the children are malnourished and 400 new refugees arrive every day.
Channel 4 News International Editor Lindsey Hilsum met some of the families as they crossed the border.
“The people coming across the border paint the picture of a region that is descending into chaos,” she said.
These people coming across the border paint a picture of a region that is descending into chaos. Channel 4 News International Editor, Lindsey Hilsum
“There’s less and less to eat, they say, and they can’t afford the prices in the market. But, worse than that, they are terrified of the armed men who are roaming northern Mali and imposing their version of sharia. The Tuaregs of northern Mali are used to a tough life – but not like this.”
The new arrivals spoke of their fear of what could lie ahead for them if they did not flee.
Local police chief Deyda Mohamed told Channel 4 News: “They say that fear of having a hand amputated, or being whipped or stoned to death, made them come. They will not accept these things. They are Muslims but they can’t endure this kind of religion being imposed upon them.”
One Tuareg refugee, Maulud Ibrahim, added: “We’re frightened because there’s no government we can trust to protect us from the armed groups.”
They have heard on the radio that foreign powers may attack the Islamists with drones or fighter bombers.
But just a few months back, the Tuaregs were celebrating. They had seized weapons from the Malian army, to add to those they had been given by Colonel Gaddafi of Libya, and claimed northern Mali as an independent Tuareg state flying their own flag. But al-Qaeda hijacked their victory.
The Tuaregs and local Islamists fought in Gao and other towns, but the Tuareg separatists were pushed out and the Islamists ultimately prevailed. Now the al-Qaeda flag flies over northern Mali – so many Tuaregs are being forced into exile.
The journey from the border to the refugee camp is not easy, and then there are further challenges ahead for the refugees – Mbera camp is still 1,000 kilometres from the Mauritanian capital. At the moment, at least they have water and the basics needed to survive.
But refugee agencies, including the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), are warning they do not have the funding to cope with more desperate families – as hundreds more arrive at Mbera and other makeshift camps in different areas every day.
The agencies say if additional funding does not come soon, food will run out in September – and long-term planning for refugee needs in 2013 is “unthinkable”.