The voices of Malian refugees
The warm wind of the Sahara blows in all directions and weaves the sand in the frames of my glasses. As far as the eyes can see, improvised houses and tents provided by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) color the dark ochre sand. Children come out of their homes when they see the car pull up and wave at us, accustomed to our presence here.
Mbera refugee camp is situated 40km from Mauritania’s southern border with Mali and stretches out for 4.5 km2 — the size of four football fields! Most of the 49, 000 refugees have been living here since the spring of 2012, shortly after fighting broke out in north-eastern Mali. Since September 2016, armed incursions in the north caused more displacements, and some 8,000 Malians have been registered as new refugees.
The World Food Programme works with partners and the refugees to provide a sense of normality for the many who fled conflict and poverty. Thanks to support from USAID Food for Peace, the government of Japan, ECHO, UK Aid, the government of Canada, and multilateral donors, WFP assists them with food and cash distributions, school meals for students, and nutritious foods to prevent and treat malnutrition among children under five and pregnant and nursing women.
Considering the unstable and volatile situation in Mali, WFP and partners fear Mbera’s numbers may surge in the coming months, to more than 50, 000, demanding a significant uptick in assistance at a time when WFP is reducing monthly food and cash rations due to financial constraints.
As I hop out of the car in front of a red and pink tent, the sand raised by the whistling wind embraces me in a cloud of dust. I am greeted by a smiling Kadjiatou, a refugee who will accompany me to meet the people of Mbera camp. Her real name, along with those of other refugees, are being withheld for privacy reasons
Schools are closed for Easter break, but the pre-primary school, the Espace des Enfants is open. I enter while Zeinabou plays her imzad, a single-string bowed instrument resembling a violin, and the children clap and sing-along cheerfully. She heads the Espace enfants since it opened five years ago, with help from two female assistants.
“We are all mothers and have our children’s wellbeing at heart”, says Zeinabou. “Children need a good meal to be lively and participate in the recreational activities we organize for them. The nutritious snack we prepare thanks to WFP is important.”
The children smile while eating, and confirm: “Innah jayid — it is good !”
Monthly food and cash distributions are underway. The sounds of chatter and a rainbow of colored vests welcome me at Distribution Site Number 3. There are five distribution sites in Mbera camp where WFP staff and partners hand out cash and food to beneficiaries registered on a special database.
Outside each site, tents are set up where refugees queue. Oumar, a newly arrived refugee, tells us he fled fighting and poverty from his village in eastern Mali with his pregnant wife and two small children, taking only six liters of water and a small bag of belongings.
“We left because all our food and animals were taken from us by armed men,” Oumar says. “Only our lives were spared. There was no choice but to leave. WFP’s food and cash assistance is important for us here.”
Fatimatou is next in line at the distribution site. After she receives her envelope of cash, she waves it, saying, “Food distributions helped our families a lot in the past years, but what is really making a difference for us today, is the cash we receive to buy other food like meat and vegetables. I also buy less on credit now.”
Other refugees here agree. The cash-transfers allow them to buy the food they like at local markets along with other basic items, such as cooking fuel and soap.
My camp guide Kadjiatou has been here since early 2012, when she and her family fled the fighting in her northern Malian village. After being treated for malnutrition, she soon was trained to help other malnourished young mothers recover. She also learned how to read and write in French.
I ask Kadjiatou what she remembers of Mali. Her eyes reflect strong emotions. “I remember conducting a normal life,” she says. “I took care of my children and the house. My husband had a job and we would spend the free time with our relatives and friends.”
I ask how she sees her future. “We are thankful to WFP, the government of Mauritania and all organizations who are working here to make our lives better,” she replies. “But some change is needed: conditions in the camp are still difficult especially for the poorest refugees. The situation in Mali doesn’t allow us to return so we need to think about better solutions. No one wants to be a refugee and depend on assistance forever.”
FOOTNOTES: Story and photos: WFP/Vanessa Rizzi