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They are 90 percent Tuareg, escaped from the war in northern Mali. Now they live in a tent camp in the Mauritanian desert: around 75,000 people, mostly women and children. Report from Mberra camp, where Malian people are wondering: when will this war end?
Pictures by Loris Savino

The trailer of the related documentary: 

The small UN aircraft glides over the suddenly dark veins of a desert that fades in ochre and red. The landing is swallowed up by the sandy Bassikonou, a village in the southeastern corner of Mauritania, the heart of Sahel that only 50 kilometers from here crackles of war. East from here, there are the cities of Timbuktu, Gao, Kidal. There is Azawad, the Northern Mali region, where the French troops are fighting the rebels. It was to be a lightning-intervention, and instead, Northern Mali risks now becoming an "Africanistan": the land of an endless conflict like Afghanistan.

A short trip by jeep from the muddy houses of Bassikonou, we find an artificial city that has been built by this war. It’s the Mberra refugee camp, 320 hectares containing the desperation of more than 75,000 people. Two hundred and fifty arrive daily, fleeing from the blood and the pillage. They are mostly women and children as the majority of the men remain in Mali with their cattle, praying for the chaos to subside. According to the UN High Committee for Refugees, the crisis that erupted in the Sahel in early 2012 has uprooted approximately 430,000 Malians: 260,000 are now displaced in their home country, while the others have asked for asylum in Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria. Mauritania, however, has received the largest number, with this number increasing in January after the French operation Serval.
We arrived here with Intersos, the only Italian NGO engaged in the Mberra camp, which is considered a high-risk area. "We fear the infiltration of unwanted elements," the UN agency for refugees alerts us, and the phrase indicates Islamic terrorists of the groups Aqim, Mujao and Ansar Dine. We Italians, together with the French, are considered most at risk for being kidnapped. As a consequence, in order to go to Mberra, we must travel in a convoy with an armed escort.

The camp is a checkerboard of white tents in the monotony of a sandy desert colored only by the black veils of women slowly walking towards the wells for water.
"The refugees are 90 percent Tuareg; the remaining 10 percent are made up of Songhai, Arabic, Peul, which are some of the ethnic groups in Mali," says Elizabeth Kabankaya of Intersos. This Congolese woman takes care of the elderly and the disabled. She also liberates the girls too soon given in marriage and finds "nurse maids" for orphaned babies. Childbirth complications are frequent here, as are malnutrition, respiratory infections and diarrhea among children.
Among adults, however, the most tenacious disease is anger. The anger that veils the eyes of Sanou Mint Alhad, a sad Songhai woman, who unfolds her nightmare in a low voice. A year ago, in the region of Timbuktu, her husband was going to sell cows in Leré with a group of Tuareg. "He was killed only because he was traveling with them." Sanou went in search of the corpse. She found it next to the animals, which were still alive. She loaded it on her cart and buried it near her house. Then, with her seven children and seven grandchildren already orphaned, she fled to Mberra. And now, motionless in this debilitating heat, she continues to wonder why.
In Mali the front line is porous, and the war against terrorism is mixed with ancient ethnic hatred. According to the Tuareg, who have always been marginalized, it’s the Malian army (composed of Bambara, the black ethnicity of the south) that targets the civilians in the north. The government, however, blames the Islamists of conspiring with a Tuareg group called Mnla. This group in turn proclaims itself secular, far removed from terrorism and the only possible guide for the Azawad region. It was Mnla that declared the secession from the north, last year, but soon after the Islamist groups ripped control of the territory from the Tuaregs. The situation is now a tangle of crossed accusations.

Alessandra Giuffrida, an Italian anthropologist specializing in Tuareg society, warns us "Do not force yourself to have a logical perspective of the dynamics of the rebel groups: new groups are born daily, forming new alliances". She came to Mberra to look for the families with whom she had lived in northern Mali. "The terrorists were in the area as early as 2006," she continues "and now there is a risk that the conflict will extend to Burkina Faso, Niger, Algeria."
Some refugees in Mberra state outright: the former Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré, called “Att”, shared the profits of drug trafficking and kidnapping with the terrorists. Moreover, the millions of dollars that were invested by the United States in Mali to fight terrorism ended up as cars and villas with swimming pools for the Malian army officers. In this context, it was easy to exploit the Tuareg rebellion in the north, placing the blame of the current anarchy on them.
But refugees give little consideration to these power games. They only care that politicians find a resolution to this situation quickly, so that they will be able to return home. "Who will give me back all this time I’ve been wasting" explodes Deija Mint Saloum, 22, who interrupted her studies in law when she was forced to flee. We meet her at the reception center for refugees, where those who have just crossed the border wait for assistance under the faint shadow of a shelter. People of all ages, bewildered eyes. Deija is one of the receptionists: now she’s talking to a young woman nursing skinny twin babies, who were born on the road to exile.

In one of the six schools of the camp, the children are following French and Arabic lessons under the tents of Unicef. "We choose the teachers among the refugees," says Federica Biondi, Head of Mission of Intersos in Mauritania, who is guiding us in this unbelievable world.. "Thanks to the UN, we can employ 72 teachers and we’re building another 48 classrooms, but the need is growing day by day." Intersos also created a place for teen recreation, in order to prevent their enforced idleness from exploding. The fear is that they will be recruited by terrorist gangs, but the Tuareg refugees swear they’re not a fertile ground for Islamic Jihad: "We are not interested in religion and absolutely independent from them. We all stay with the Mnla,” says Maya Waled Mohamedoun, who in Mali lead a wealthy way of life: "My husband was commander in the army: we have served the Malian State, but it does not matter because we are not of Bambara ethnicity. They hunted us, they cut our throats, they killed us like flies ... In Leré, the Malian army has just killed my nephew. I remember well the operation Kokadje in the ‘90s: Kokadje means ethnic cleansing, and it was the plan of the Malian State for us Tuaregs."

In January, the International Criminal Court opened an inquiry about the massacre in Azawad. In Mberra, we come across a man who could become a key witness: "I left to sell goods in Niono, Mali" he reports. "In the van there were other men that I did not know. At dusk, we were stopped at a roadblock near Diabaly, and suddenly someone opened fire on us. I ran away, walking five days and five nights to come to Mberra, and here I learned that, of the 18 travelers, we were the only two who survived" It was the massacre of Diabaly, the 8th of September 2012: 16 religious and unarmed men were killed. It’s one of the accounts being investigated by the Court in The Hague, and our witness has no doubts: "The Malian soldiers shot us."
"We are on the brink of genocide," murmurs Zakiyatou Oualett Halatine, who is among the 15,000 Malian refugees in Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, a 4-hour flight from Mberra. Before the enforced exile, Zakiyatou was a minister in Mali, an UN official and a businesswoman in Kati, a Malian town populated mostly by Bambara. "In '91 the army killed my uncle and destroyed the house of my mother. But I wanted to stay in my house in Kati, near Bamako, thinking that we are all the same - Bambara, Tuareg, Arabs ... - and we have the same rights. But in February 2012 I noticed that the eyes of my neighbors were changing. They had stopped greeting me. One night I woke up feeling apprehensive. I started to fill a suitcase and I waited for morning to withdraw money from the bank. That same day, the pharmacy and the clinic of my sister were torched. And shortly after, they destroyed my house and my office." Zakyietou shows the photos of a life that’s been shattered into pieces. Rubble and broken glass are all that remains. Her youngest daughter was only narrowly saved from the fury of those who wanted to hit the most prominent Turaeg family in town. Then Zakyietou fled to Paris, "but then I decided to settle in Nouakchott so that I could closely follow the cause of my people."

Every Monday, the Malian Tuareg women who live in Nouakchott pound millet in a mortar, mix it with milk and offer this pasty drink to Allah pleading for peace.

 We’ve been invited by a woman whose name is Hadija. She was young and pregnant when the Malian soldiers broke into her house in Timbuktu. They raped her. They forced her husband to watch and then they killed him. She left Mali forever. It was 1994. "Nothing has changed." And her sobs are silent. 

Released by Io donna, June 1, 2013. Thanks to Intersos NGO and UNHCR


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