In Mauritanian refugee camp, Mali's Tuaregs regroup
At Mbera refugee camp in Mauritania, 100,000 mainly Tuareg refugees from Mali regroup as Tuareg separatists and Islamist militants battle it out for control of northern Mali.
As conflict returns to northern Mali, a refugee camp in neighboring Mauritania that had slowly dwindled in peacetime has burst to life once again, now hosting 100,000 refugees. Most of these refugees are ethnic Tuaregs, supporters of the separatist rebels who swept Malian government troops from the arid northern two-thirds of the country in April, and were then themselves pushed out by former allies, the Islamist militant groups who now rule the north by fiat.Skip to next paragraph
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An aspiring volunteer giggles nervously as she lists the visible symptoms of malnutrition in young children (“sunken eyes, thin arms, big belly”) in a recruitment interview with the UN World Food Programme. For nomads hardened to the conditions of Saharan life – scarce food and water, sleeping in tents or under the stars – the austerity of refugee life is not far from their customary daily struggle. Solidarity with the separatist movement also helps many of these refugees deal with their displacement, along with the fact that refugees have been coming back and forth to Mbera since the early 1990s, during previous Tuareg rebellions.
Because of that, Mbera camp resembles less a cesspit of misery than a kind of wellspring of Tuareg revivalism, a rare space in which the predominance of Tuareg culture is unchallenged and unrestricted. In Mali, on the other hand, Tuaregs are under attack by both Malians and Islamists. Refugees say they are “stuck between the hammer and the anvil” now.
“Our displacement was caused by historical wounds between the nomads and the Malian government,” says the elected chief of the refugees, Mohamed ag Hamata Dimenani. The first wave of refugees arrived in early February, when the Malian Army began to be ripped apart from the inside.
The UN estimates that 420,000 people have fled northern Mali since the outbreak of the Tuareg rebellion last January. An assortment of Al Qaeda-linked groups currently control two-thirds of the country, having sidelined and outmaneuvered the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad's (MNLA) armed struggle to carve out an independent territory from northern Mali. Recent attention has focused on the risks these Islamists pose to the region and global security, forgetting the initial cleavage between Tuaregs and the Malian state that sparked this rash of war in the north.
The Mbera camp was founded during a prior Tuareg separatist rebellion in the early 1990s. A pillar of the peace accord between Mali and the Tuaregs at that time was the integration of “white” Tuareg and Arab soldiers into the national Army. When the latest rebellion broke out, many of those defected with weapons and arms to join the rebellion; black southern soldiers persecuted and in some cases killed soldiers who did remain loyal.
“When we saw [our brothers and sons flee the Malian Army], we understood that we could not stay peacefully,” Mr. Dimenani said. Memories of aerial bombings, massacres, and unmarked graves during the last rebellion remain fresh.