WHD 2013

Wednesday, July 3, 2013


For Malian Refugees, Peace Deal Does Not Guarantee Safe Return

By Alice Thomas, Refugees International

Under a corrugated metal roof at the Goudebou refugee camp in Burkina Faso, eight or nine families huddle in small groups awaiting a food distribution. These are the “new arrivals,” a UN Refugee Agency worker explains – people who recently fled Mali, Burkina’s northern neighbor, and arrived at the camp in recent days.
As I study their faces, I notice the rich ethnic diversity reflected in their eyes, skin color, features, and dress. A group of Songhai women sit silently, their eyes taking in their new surroundings. Next to them, a young Tuareg woman prepares tea for her husband and mother while two small children toddle about. But while their language, religions, and ethnicities may be different, they share a common nationality – Malian.
Malian refugees wait for a food distribution in Goudebou camp, Burkina Faso
Credit: Refugees International
Goudebou sits on the outskirts of the town of Dori in northern Burkina Faso, and at the edge of the Sahelian zone – a semi-arid landscape where tree cover and water are scarce. Opened last year, the camp is now home to 10,000 refugees who have fled violence between the Malian military, Tuareg separatists, and Islamic extremists. A French-led military intervention in January succeeded in retaking the north’s major towns, but led to additional displacement.
I ask the Songhai women when they arrived. “Last night,” the daughter, who is about 18, replies in French. When I ask why they fled, she shifts her eyes about nervously, looking to see who is around her. I ask her again and she looks away, not wanting to answer.
Later, I sit under a large tent talking to a group of Tuareg men who fled Mali last March. We talk about the peace negotiations taking place in Burkina’s capital city that day, which produced a provisional peace deal between the Malian government and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), a Tuareg separatist group.
I ask the men if they will return to Mali if an agreement is reached. They scoff at my question, shaking their heads. “We cannot return – it is not safe.” 
One of the men recounts a story. “Two or three months ago, two Tuareg traders who had been with us here in the camp decided to return to Mali to check their herds,” he says. “We heard that they were killed by members of the Malian army.” Another adds, “Several weeks ago, a young man who was recently married decided to go back to check whether it was safe to bring his wife back. We heard he was also killed. He has not come back. His widow is here in the camp.”
A Tuareg man from Mali now living as a refugee in Goudebou camp
Credit: Refugees International

“Don’t you see?” the man explains, “We are guilty by implication. If we return, the Malian army will assume that we fled because we are MNLA. ” Though their individual stories of retribution cannot be confirmed, they fit a troubling pattern of abuses by Malian soldiers – as well as Tuareg rebels – against civilians documented by human rights groups. The very act of return makes these refugees suspect, so creating a safe environment for return could be long and difficult; perceptions will have to change and trust will have to be rebuilt.
The next day, I discuss the refugees’ fate with the head of an aid group which has assisted displaced Malians since the crisis began. “There is a great deal of distrust now,” he said, “not just between the Malian army and the Tuaregs, but among local populations – those who fled and those who stayed.” Civilians who sympathized with, or merely submitted to, Islamist groups could also be viewed as collaborators, leading neighbor to turn against neighbor. We discuss whether the implications of this distrust have been fully recognized by the international community as it seeks to move forward with a peace deal and elections in late July.
The recent agreement between Mali and the MNLA is certainly a welcome step towards ending the Mali conflict. But the ethnically- and religiously-charged violence that exploded last year not only left deep wounds but also sowed suspicion and distrust, meaning the road to lasting peace in Mali will be a long one.
Abuses by all sides must be fully investigated and prosecuted. The UN peacekeeping mission that is now being deployed must also ensure that civilians are protected and peace enforced. But this must be accompanied by a robust reconciliation process led by civil society that has the full support of the Malian government and the international community.
Alice Thomas is the Climate Displacement Program Manager at Refugees International, a non-profit organization that works to end displacement and stateless crises worldwide and accepts no government or UN funding.

For more visit http://www.refintl.org/
Follow Refugees International on Twitter

No comments:

Post a Comment