BlogTwo years after the first refugees fleeing armed conflict in northern Mali stranded in this desert location near the Mauritanian town of Bassikounou , 60 000 of them continue to be rely on aid. Water, food, shelter, health care, all of these essential services in Mbera camp are being provided by humanitarian organisations, some of them funded by ECHO, the European Commission humanitarian aid and civil protection service. With conditions for a safe return home not met, according to the refugees, most of them are not planning to pack their bags anytime soon.

Michael Shaikh, director of country operations for Center for Civilians in Conflict, and Sam Hendricks, a consultant for CIVIC, are currently in Mali speaking with civilians about the current conflict and the challenges they face.

“Before the rebels came, life was good,” said Ahmed, a schoolteacher in Mali who sat down with Center for Civilians in Conflict last week to tell us his story. “We had rice, meat, money, and medicine. All of the basics were met. A French company was also building a new road, which employed a lot of local people. But as soon as the Jihadists came, that all stopped.”

Ahmed and his wife are from the Timbuktu province and were forced to flee and leave everything behind when hardline Islamist rebels arrived and heavy fighting broke out between them and the Malian army. He and his wife, who was seven months pregnant at the time, fled at night to avoid being caught by the rebels: “If the Islamists caught you they would punish you. They didn’t want anyone to leave – leaving meant failure for their cause. They also wanted to use us as hostages so the army wouldn’t attack them.”

After a long and arduous journey, the two of them arrived at their relatives’ village where their three children had been sent when the fighting first broke out. The rebels had closed the city’s schools and were forcibly recruiting young boys to join them, a widespread problem according to many people that CIVIC has spoken to in Mali. “We were extremely worried for their safety, so we sent them to my wife’s older sister in [another area],” Ahmed explained.

As a consequence of the flight, the family’s finances are in ruins. Ahmed is now working as a schoolteacher for $4 a day and is stuck with an expensive rental apartment and a massive loan he recently took out for $3800 to purchase 25 cows. Ahmed says the cows and all his other belongings are now gone but still the loan remains: “When I think about what they [the rebels] did to our home, how they forced my family to flee, it feels like death. That place is our life.”

Ahmed and his family are far from alone in their predicament. Looting has been endemic throughout the crisis in some northern Malian towns, like Gao and Timbuku. The pillaging of private, as well as government, property seems to be motivated as much by ethnic and racial tensions as by individual opportunism and greed. As bad as the material losses are, many fear that when the displaced return, there will be vigilante violence against perceived looters, which will almost certainly exacerbate the root causes of the Malian conflict. Ahmed shares the concern:

We have to realize that things have changed for the worse. We all have a duty to understand that we live in a very fragile society now — and what that means. Many people want to take revenge…but we have to understand that revenge will tip us into hell.

Ahmed says things were good in his town between Malians from different ethnic communities before the fighting: “I am a black man, and I even considered taking a Tuareg woman as second wife [referring to one Mali’s ethnic groups, also known as Tauregs, who are at the center of the conflict]. But things have changed since the Islamists came. Relations between Tuaregs and black Malians are fragile now. Tuaregs and some Arabs are seen as bringing the Islamists here.”

As the thousands of internally displaced people in their situation, Ahmed and his family want to go home, but they do not think it is safe to do so yet: “There’s no 24-hour security presence there. The Malian army only does a patrol now and then. But it is better than before. I’ll continue to call my neighbor who is still in [the area]. When he says it safe to return, we’ll consider going back.”

Image courtesy of Anouk Delafortrie/EC/ECHO