‘Too soon to return’ for Malians who fled Islamists

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Under the blazing African sun in a makeshift tent city in the Inner Niger Delta, 600 Malians live side-by-side, waiting for the day they feel safe enough to return to their homes.

They are among thousands of “internally displaced people” (IDPs) who fled when Islamist fighters cut a swathe through the north of their country a year ago, occupying towns and cities and imposing a brutal version of Islamic sharia law.

For months they have been housed in dozens of tents in a camp run by local authorities with the help of the UN and humanitarian organizations in the town of Sevare, 600 kilometers (370 miles) northeast of the Malian capital, Bamako.

Life in the camp is a daily struggle against hardship and boredom, but they receive food rations, medical attention and, most importantly, sanctuary from the conflict still raging in the north of the west African nation.

“I don’t want to go home yet. The war isn’t over, and I have nothing to eat in my village,” one young woman said, echoing the sentiments of many in the camp.

Gao and the other main cities of Mali’s vast northern desert, comprising about 60 percent of the country’s surface area, fell to ethnic Tuareg rebels in the vacuum left by a military coup a year ago.

They lost control to Al Qaeda-linked radicals who destroyed Muslim shrines, carrying out amputations, executions and beatings, before Malis former colonial ruler France sent in troops and took back the cities of the north in January.

With French and African soldiers in a battle to flush out armed Islamists entrenched in the northeastern Infoghas mountains, thousands of those displaced by the fighting are still waiting to go home.

“I do not want to return immediately to my village, which is not far from Gao. It seems that the Islamists are still in my village. And how am I going to eat?” said Marietou, a mother in her 50s, surrounded by five of her children.

And so she and her fellow IDPs stay, the children passing the time by kicking around a football while others play around taps which spit out drinking water. At the entrance of the camp, many women sit on mats and watch television.

“Some who were here went home, but many others do not want to return,” said Aisha Dembele, the camp coordinator.

Some 170,000 Malians left northern Mali for neighboring countries and 260,000 have fled their homes to seek refuge elsewhere within Mali since early 2012, according to the U.N.

People staying in the camp are entitled to medicine and food rations donated through the U.N.’s World Food Program (WFP) and charities.

“We cannot get all that in any of the three northern regions if we go there,” said Boubel, a young farmer who lost his livestock due to the crisis in the country.

‘The crisis is not over’

Camp doctor Souleymane Sanogo says the patients he sees in his clinic often suffer from ulcers due to stress.

“In talking with them, we realize that the stress can be explained by the fact that they are afraid to go home,” he says.

He points to a patient sitting on a bench who refuses to return to her village in the region around the fabled northwestern desert city of Timbuktu, even though her husband and three of her six children have already begun the journey back.

In Sevare, the regional capital Mopti and the area around both towns, there are some 40,000 IDPs living in camps or with host families, according to Ibrahima Hama Traore, the governor of the Mopti region.

“Life is returning to normal in the region since the intervention of French-African troops but the situation of IDPs remains a concern,” he said.

After a visit to the Sevare camp on Sunday, WFP executive director Ertharin Cousin cautioned that “the crisis is not over in Mali,” even if the fighting is now concentrated in the extreme north-east.

The WFP plans to provide food assistance to more than one million people this year in Mali, a country hit hard last year - especially in the north - by severe drought along with its neighbors in the Sahel region.

The presence of IDPs in towns in the Inner Niger Delta is starting to present other less obvious but equally pressing problems, say locals.

“Three thousand displaced children are enrolled in the towns of Mopti and Sevare and the vicinity,” Mopti mayor Oumar Bathily told AFP.

The result has been severely overcrowded classrooms.

“Today, in a classroom in Sevare or Mopti, there are 180 students,” said the mayor. “It’s a disaster.”