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.

Joe Penney/Reuters/File
Tents set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are seen in a refugee camp for Malians in Mbera, Mauritania, about 25 miles from the border with Mali, May 23.

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.

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.

Nevertheless, refugees perceive Al Qaeda-linked rebel groups as a greater threat. For while the Tuaregs have a history of raids and resolutions with the Malian government, the Islamists that have hijacked the Tuareg rebellion and are violently imposing sharia upon the North pose an existential threat to northern culture and patrimony, in which musical traditions, empowered women, and local saints figure prominently.

Camp's culture a microcosm of life in northern Mali

The camp is a microcosm of culture and power in northern Mali. At a general assembly, where the heads of each sector are meeting to discuss aid distribution, the din of voices competing for the floor is deafening, until a woman stands up and commands silence under the broad tent. The woman, Fati Ouallet Mamili, conducts the entire meeting, which is focused on a proposal to begin channeling aid through women leaders in each sector, rather than exclusively through the male sector heads.

“All their shouting – it is because there is insufficient material,” she said afterward. “Each sector head has a great world behind him, and is afraid of not providing for them. If you have 400 people and 200 blankets, how will you choose?”

The women of the camp play a crucial, if not quite militarized, role in the Tuareg mission to found an independent Azawad.

“We need the country to be really liberated," says Ms. Fati. "We are not goats that you can send out in the morning and bring back at night.”

The women’s “weapons,” she said, are to counsel their male relatives in the MNLA to be sure to get peace right this time around. For Fati, peace means for Azawad, from Lere to Kidal, to be free.

“Azawad is Azawad, and Mali can just go over there,” she said, waving her hand. “We are surprised that south Mali even wants Azawad. Azawad means the great sieve you rinse rice in. Why does Mali need sand?”

In terms of water and food, Fati said, the refugees were better off in the camp than in Azawad.

“Azawad is only dunes of sand. And we want them. When countries give money to Timbuktu [via Bamako], it should go straight to Timbuktu. The state has never done anything for us – so they must give us our money and we’ll do it ourselves!” said Halimatou, another women’s leader in the camp.

“Northern Mali, Azawad, whatever you call it, what is sure is that it is Tuareg country,” said Ahmed ag Hamama, a professor who belonged to the first generation of Tuaregs to attend school, under colonial rule. He recruited and taught most of the Tuaregs who integrated into the Malian state as Ministers or government officials under the previous peace agreement.

But Mr. Ag Hamama later undermined the separatist message that the bulk of the refugees find so stirring. Ansar Dine, one of the three Islamist groups that is terrorizing northern Mali, is founded and run by Tuaregs. The Tuaregs, already split by tribal, regional, and caste fault lines, are now witnessing a new division between the salafist, anti-Independence Ansar Dinen and secular, separatist MNLA.

“Our concern today is the division of Tuaregs. We don’t even need Independence now – how would we manage it? We are not ready to move toward this Independence. But we aspire to it.”

Hannah Armstrong is a freelance journalist and a Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs, based in Bamako, Mali.

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