UNHCR: Food shortages await thousands fleeing Mali conflict


Almost 7,500 refugees have fled into neighbouring countries since French and Malian forces launched a counter-offensive against Islamic militants almost two weeks ago and the exodus is continuing.

In Mauritania, 4,208 Malian refugees have arrived since the latest fighting began on January 11. After being registered at the Fassala transit centre, they are being transported further inland to the Mbera refugee camp, which was already hosting some 55,000 people from earlier displacements.

In Niger there are now 1,300 new refugees, mainly from the Menaka and Anderamboukane areas. During the same period, Burkina Faso has received 1,829 new refugees. These are mainly ethnic Tuaregs and Songhai from the regions of Gossi, Timbuktu, Gao and Bambara Maoude.

“To help receive people we have erected two hangars in Inabao, at the border with Mali, which is currently the main entry point for new refugees. Our partner, Plan Burkina, has also rehabilitated a water pump and has constructed emergency latrines,” a UNHCR spokesman, Adrian Edwards, said. “In part, this is aimed too at easing any possible tensions with the local population,” he added.

New arrivals continue to tell UNHCR that they left their homes because of French air strikes and fighting, as well as fears over the application of Islamic law, or Sharia. They also speak of increasing shortages of food and fuel, with traditional markets unable to operate. A lack of cereal is pushing breeders to either kill some of their animals as they have nothing else to eat, or to try to sell them.

Some refugees are travelling by private car or by truck, while others have arrived from Mali on foot or by donkey. Many newly arrived refugees are expecting additional members of their families to join them in the next days from Mali.

UNHCR and partners continue to assist those refugees who are in camps in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania by providing clean water, sanitation and hygiene structures, food, adequate shelter, health care and education.

In Burkina Faso, vehicles are going back and forth at the border to collect those who are unable to walk. “We are also continuing to relocate refugees from the border to safer sites inland,” spokesman Edwards noted.

On Saturday, a convoy with 568 refugees left the Ferrerio and Gandafabou refugee sites, in Burkina Faso’s northern Sahel region to be relocated to Goudebou camp near the town of Dori. Ferrerio will now only be used as a transit centre for the new arrivals before they are transported to Goudebou. In total, Burkina Faso is hosting 38,776 Malian refugees.

Including those displaced this month, almost 150,000 Malians have found refuge in neighbouring countries since the Mali crisis started in January 2012. Inside Mali, 229,000 people are displaced – mainly from the Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao areas.

For the internally displaced as well as for refugees, the immediate needs are for water, food, shelter and medical care. Living conditions are particularly precarious for the internally displaced and UNHCR is supporting income-generation activities in the Mali capital of Bamako for IDPs.

But humanitarian access to other areas of Mali is severely restricted by the security situation. Abdullah, 41, was staying in a small room at his father’s house in the capital after fleeing with his family from the southern town of Diabaly, which was captured by the Islamists on January 14 and briefly held.

Abdullah worked as a driver for a private company in Diabaly and told UNHCR he was picking up his boss at his home on January 14 “when we were attacked by six men. They were threatening us with their guns and Kalashnikovs and asked for the car keys before taking away the vehicle.” He returned home and stayed there with his family as the sounds of gunfire and explosions echoed around the town.

He decided to leave the next morning on foot with his wife and four children, heading south towards the capital. “We joined many other people who were leaving Diabaly. I was carrying my younger son on my shoulders. We went straight to Bamako,” Abdullah said.

In their small temporary home, his wife and four children sleep on the bed, while Abdullah bunks down on the floor. “It is normally a room used for storage,” he said, adding: “I just want to return to Diabaly and go back to work so that I can take care of my family.”

By Hélène Caux in Bamako, Mali



Gallery: Azawad Interim Council President Inauguration


Supporters of an independent Azawad gathered in Mali on Friday, 15 June 2012 for the official inauguration of an interim president, MNLA Secretary-General, Bilal Ag Acherif.

Ag Cherif reiterated [fr] the aims of the council as listed in the Azawadi Declaration of Independence and announced initiatives to establish state institutions, and to develop a charter that defines the fundamental principles of a new constitution for Azawad. He again called on the international community to recognise the 28-member Transitional Council of the State of Azawad (Conseil de Transition de l’Etat de l’Azawad, CTEA).

A concerted lobbying effort for military intervention by members of ECOWAS and the African Union is still in progress, notably with the United Nations Security Council. Old enmities between key north African countries impact discussions, and force interested parties to perform an elaborate diplomatic dance of meetings followed by visits to share developments with estranged ones. A little like friends and family trying to maintain relationships with both sides of an acrimonious divorce, it all slows and complicates the process, while creating a breeding ground for intrigue. Countries that under normal circumstances might be expected to have a say – Libya, Egypt, Yemen – are to be excused, as they have enough on their respective domestic plates. Beyond Africa, France (its Foreign Minister more specifically) is still bullish, while the US is relying on “media diplomacy” for now. I’ve not noticed any official statements from Gulf states. Perhaps Iran will weigh in with an opinion on Azawad, and then the rhetoric can really begin to fly.

One thing all sides agree on is the worrying humanitarian situation of tens of thousands of refugees and internally displaced people as the “lean period” approaches. There is ample space at the borders with Algeria and Mauritania to create humanitarian corridors under an agreement not to resume hostilities. I am interested to see if anyone raises this idea, and whether this possibility also exists at the borders with Niger, Burkina Faso and the Ivory Coast. I assume this would conflict with the agenda of the rebel groups, as they now enjoy relatively unrestricted access to and from neighbouring countries, and the pro-invasion crowd aren’t canvassing for suggestions. Therefore I don’t hold out much hope for a logical solution.

Misery Awaits Refugees from Mali in Mauritania


Malian refugees walk at Mbere refugee camp, near Bassiknou, southern Mauritania. Photo: ABDELHAK SENNA, Getty Images / 2012 AFP

Tens of thousands of Malian refugees who took shelter in neighbouring Mauritania are now marooned in the desert, trying to survive in extremely difficult conditions.

An Anadolu Agency (AA) correspondent recently visited the Mberra refugee camp for 62,000 Malian refugees, established three months ago some 1,460 kilometres away from the Mauritanian capital city of Nouakchott, and provided some grim details to Turkish Weekly.

Living in tents erected in the middle of the desert, most of the refugees spend their time by sleeping in their tents, protecting themselves from the heat and wind-blown sand.

Water needs of the refugees is met by tankers and, although the summer season only just began, temperature at the camp is already around 40 degrees Centigrade during day time.

Kitchen equipment, medicines and food items are among the most needed items in the camp.

Clashes Following The End of Gadhafi Rule

The clashes in Mali erupted in January 2012, following the return of Tuareg MNLA militants, who had served in the late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi’s special forces, who then  began fighting for the independence of the Azawad region, with weapons assumed to have been brought with them from Libya.

In April 2012, a section of the Malian army conducted a coup and took control of the government, claiming that the former government of Mali was not effectively dealing with Tuareg militants.

Capitalising on the coup, Tuareg militants were able to swiftly gain control of large northern cities of Timbuktu, Kidal and Gao.

Hundreds of thousands of people are said to have been displaced due to clashes between Tuareg militants and the Malian army, but details on what threats they are escaping, why they choose to leave the country instead of heading for the south, and the logistics of their movements, are difficult to determine. That anyone would select Mauritania, with its food shortages, drought and other issues, defies rational explanation. In any event, now they are here, willingly or not, and they are suffering. Soon most will be too weak to contemplate moving again, and where would they go: back to Mali, to be used as pawns in an internal power struggle?

UN sources have told the AA that 56,000 Malians fled to Burkina Faso, 39,000 to Niger and 62,000 to Mauritania. A United Nations (UN) official in the region has told the AA that the number of refugees in the camp may significantly increase in the near future, without explaining why this might be. The official made a call on all international organizations to send assistance to the camp.

Mains source: Turkish Weekly.

Hostage freed by #AQIM after 14 months captivity returns home to #Italy


Maria Sandra Mariani, an Italian tourist who was abducted by al-Qaeda militants in the desert in Algeria last year, talks to reporters following her release

An Italian hostage kidnapped by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria and released in Burkina Faso after 14 months in captivity in the Sahara desert returned to Italy on Wednesday, a day after her release in Burkina Faso.

Looking visibly thinner, 54-year-old Maria Sandra Mariani was greeted by her son and sister at Ciampino airport in Rome. She was then taken to the prosecutor’s office and the foreign ministry for debriefings.

She is due back in her home town of San Casciano near Florence later.

“Maria Sandra Mariani is free. I have just informed her relatives. I join them in their great satisfaction and relief at this magnificent news,” Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi was quoted saying on Tuesday.

He also voiced gratitude for “all those who contributed to this result” and told reporters that Mariani had been held in “terrible conditions.”

Mariani spoke to her family after being freed and was quoted by Italian media as telling them: “I am in heaven, I am finally free!”

“I’ve thought of you a lot and I hug you all. I’m fine.”

She then boarded a plane that had been specially chartered by Italian authorities to take her from the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou, to Rome where she was set to arrive in the early hours of Wednesday.

Her father started crying on hearing news of her release and lawmakers in the Italian parliament burst out in a round of applause, media reports said.

“It’s official. My daughter Maria Sandra is free and coming home soon,” her father, Lido, said at his home in San Casciano Val di Pesa south of Florence.

Mariani said he expected his daughter back in her home town on Wednesday.

A high-level security source in Burkina Faso earlier told AFP that Mariani had been taken to a hotel following her release and was in good health.

“She is well despite the shock of what she has experienced,” he said.

Mariani was travelling as a tourist with a driver and tour guide when she was kidnapped in a remote area of southern Algeria on February 2.

The driver and guide were later released and said they had been kidnapped by “14 men riding in two Toyota trucks”, a security source said at the time.

In an audio recording aired by Al-Arabiya television on February 18, Mariani’s voice was heard saying in halting French that she was “being held by the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Tarek ibn Zyad battalion”.

In July last year, AFP in Bamako in Mali viewed a video of the woman given to negotiators in which she did not speak but was shown in a veil and pink robes, sitting on the sand with her hands crossed and guns in the background.

Italian foreign ministry officials kept tight-lipped on the circumstances of the release. A spokesman told AFP: “There was diplomatic action and intelligence action. There are details we cannot divulge.”

The foreign ministry also vehemently denied reports in some media that a three-million-euro ($4.0-million) ransom had been paid.

The spokesman said Mariani had been moved across two or three countries during her captivity but could not say which country she was last held in.

Italy’s International Cooperation and Integration Minister Andrea Riccardi said he would travel to Burkina Faso on Friday to thank the government there.

“This is a happy ending to a very long captivity, which has put Maria Sandra and her relatives under a severe strain,” Riccardi said.

Burkina Faso neighbours Mali, where Tuareg rebels and Islamist groups have seized the northern half of the country in recent weeks. A Swiss woman was seized by Islamists in the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu on Sunday.

Algeria’s foreign ministry said it was “delighted” by Mariani’s release.

“We are delighted by the liberation of the Italian national Maria Sandra Mariani and we ardently hope that other hostages held by various groups can be freed and returned to their families safe and sound,” the ministry said.

Rossella Urru

Another Italian national, aid worker Rossella Urru, was captured in Algeria along with two Spanish colleagues in October 2011 and is still being held.

A Malian source close to the mediators told AFP last month that they were being held by a group calling itself the “Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa” which had demanded a 30-million-euro ransom for them.