At Stake in Mali: Refugees at Every Border

AFRICA, 6 Aug 2012

Ramzy Baroud – TRANSCEND Media Service

‘We don’t even know who to be afraid of anymore,’ said Hama Ould Mohammad Bashir, a refugee from Mali (New York Times, July 18 [2012]). ‘There are a lot of armed people, coming and going all the time.’

The humanitarian crisis in Mali is developing at an alarmingly fast pace. While there are new camps being set up by UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger, they are hardly enough to accommodate all the desperate families attempting to escape imminent death by roaming through the vast deserts of West Africa. There are many more people displaced within Mali itself, trapped amongst various militias, extremist groups and the army.

John Ging, Director of Operations of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), toured some of the camps in Mali. On July 26, he was in the capital Bamako, calling for a doubling of efforts to stave off the harms of war. “The humanitarian situation is deteriorating rapidly because of the inadequacy of the response. The situation in Mali is desperate, but not hopeless,” said Ging. “There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way the humanitarian response is funded. We can avoid a disaster, but only if the opportunities for a quick scaling up of the response are not missed” (UN News, July 26).

According to OCHA, 420,000 people have been displaced by the conflict. But the number must be significantly higher considering that the size of north Mali alone is larger than the size of France. It is largely a desert area, adjacent to several countries with massive borderlines. The Times reported that on July 25 alone, over 1,000 people arrived at a UN refugee camp in Mbera, Mauritania. Yet, only “42 per cent of the $214 million (Dh787 million) required for the humanitarian response has been received,” according to Ging (UN News).

Mali’s population is relatively sparse compared to its massive size. The country was previously paraded as a model of stability and a fledgling democracy in West Africa. On March 22, a US-trained Mali Army Capt. Amadou Sanogo led a coup against President Amadou Toumani Toure. Fighting in the north escalated in January due to the flood of weapons that had entered the region following Western military intervention in Libya last year.

Expectedly, the coup led to a political vacuum needed for the Tawareq’s National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to declare independence in the north merely two weeks later. The declaration was the culmination of quick military victories by the MNLA, which led to the capture of Gao and other major towns. The successive developments further emboldened militant groups to seize cities across the country and hold them hostage to their agendas. Within the power configuration that was quickly developing in the north, a conflict soon ensued, giving the upper hand to Ansar Dine (‘Protectors of the Faith’), who ousted Tawareqs from various regions, including the historic city of Timbuktu. Much of Timbuktu — recognized by Unesco as a world heritage site — now lies in ruins.

Another notorious group quickly moved in. Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), a group that has topped the list of US enemies in Africa, has, to an extent, rationalised the need for the United States Africa Command (Africom). Headquartered in Germany, Africom has been pushing for “alliances” in a continent that was, for decades, mostly outside the US sphere of influence. The work of the relatively new command includes all of Africa, except Egypt. The declared motives of Africom, including “to play a supportive role as Africans continue to build democratic institutions” are intentionally conspicuous.

The mess in Mali is presenting the US with a rare opportunity to strengthen its presence in West Africa. A top US Department of Defense official stated on July 26 that Mali “has become a greater focus of US counterterrorism attention”, according to CNN online. Michael Sheehan wanted to “find a way to move forward” in Mali and to “start to accelerate that effort” — perhaps a coded language for intervention.

The head of Africom, General Carter Ham, is also articulating the kind of language that is often heard in conflict zones. “We — the international community, the Malian government — missed an opportunity to deal with AQIM when they were weak. Now the situation is much more difficult and it will take greater effort by the international community and certainly by a new Malian government,” he told reporters in Senegal, as quoted in Reuters on July 26.

General Ham did not reveal whether unmanned drones will be used in Mali, but the discussion seems to be pointing in that direction.

The tragedy is that Mali’s convoluted crisis is not the type that can be remedied by bombs and missiles. War is likely to compound an already multifarious situation and cause even greater tragedy to the devastated country. ECOWAS, the regional bloc, has appeared as if spearheading the intervention efforts and awaiting an interventionist decision by the UN Security Council. The West African group, however, might be used as a platform to achieve both French and US plans.

Mariama Ahoumoudou, a Malian refugee, arrived at a camp in Niger with her three children and seven grandchildren. “There is no place for the poor people”, she said. First she fled to Gao, but then Gao fell. After an arduous journey she made it to Niger, only to find an unforgiving draught and numerous malnourished children at the border area. She is “lucky”, though, as many Malian families have been separated in similar journeys and many loved ones have been lost.

The situation in Mali is most serious — not just because of the menacing armed men circulating desert towns in pickup trucks, but also because millions of people are held being hostage to competing ideologies, regional politics and menacing international designs that see war as an opportunity and nothing else.


Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of His latest book is My Father was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. (Pluto Press, London).

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