The first refugee we speak with in the town of Sevare is pretty confident that the conflict between Mali’s weak government and Islamist insurgents will blow over. Even before her hometown of Timbuktu was won over by French and Malian forces this week, she suspected she’d be able to get back there and pick up where she’d left things, eight months ago, when she heard heavy gunfire and started running.
“It will be like it used to be,” she tells our guide in Bambara. We never catch her name because her infant son Ali, sitting in her lap, keeps poking his finger in her mouth, which she permits with a weary smile. Ali is six months old; he was born in the refugee camp, a good 500 kilometers southeast of his mom's home.
Uangara, a 30-year-old refugee from Gao – considered to be another Tuareg stronghold like Timbuktu was – says there never were any Tuaregs in the city, except for the marketplace. They had lived in the desert – until one day they just came in, blasted away the Malian army and declared an independent Azawad state – take it or leave it.
“I don't care for either the MNLA or Ansar ad-Dine,” she says, naming both the secular separatist movement of the Tuareg and the sharia promoters who sidelined it in Azawad. She says she finds it hard to believe that things can go back to what they were before, but she does not say how they may be instead.
The refugee aid distribution zone is not the pit of suffering and despondence that such places are stereotyped to be. Instead, it looks like a cross between a political rally and a Walmart on Black Friday: Women in bright dresses crowd a lone man handing out food coupons, frowning and complaining as he barks out their names. At first glance, we took it to be a campaign of civil disobedience, but they described it as “standing in line.” When my colleague sets up his camera, they start crowding us instead, and little Ali grabs my hand and squeezes my finger.
Many women wear golden jewelry and hold cellphones no worse than mine. Though their men are nowhere to be seen, it's because they are doing odd jobs in town, not because something’s happened to them, one of the zone's supervisors explains. The women tell no stories about mass executions, rapes or slaughter of civilians – most simply did as Ali's mom had and fled when the fighting got close. The majority have been in Sevare for months, and whatever sadness or fear they experienced is fading; in fact, some are excited by the unexpected proximity to southern centers of civilization and bug us for a lift to Mopti.
Nonetheless, some share harsher stories behind their escape. One mentions her brother being jailed and tortured for a month because cigarettes were found at his house – a big no-no in sharia. He was released after he went insane. Another saw a relative pressganged into Islamist service as a driver, a month elapsing before he managed to escape. The third recalls how there were no more tickets for buses going from the besieged Gao, and the family had to travel 25 kilometers through the mountains in a horse-driven cart. They don't dwell on it, and seem so happy about France intervening on their behalf that one tells us, “God is French.”
But how long will the happiness last once the refugees return?
“I will get back home,” says Safetu Maiga, also from Gao. “But I will never be friends with my Tuareg neighbors there anymore.”
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