In Africa, Malians forced to flee, frustrated by lack of progress

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Foune Dicko fled Timbuktu in northern Mali with her 10 children after rebels took over the capital. She's seeking refuge in the southern capital, Bamako. (Photo by Tamasin Ford.)

In the West African country of Mali, people are waiting for a United Nations Security Council decision on a military intervention to liberate the northern part of the country from radical Islamist groups.

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For the past six months, more than 400,000 Malians in the north have been forced to abandon their homes. About half of them are living in refugee camps in neighboring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Guinea.

Many others are staying in Mali’s southern capital, Bamako.

In the cliffside outskirts of the city, the Yattara family home is crammed full of relatives who have fled the north.

Founé Dicko, who speaks in Tamasheq, a northern dialect, says there isn’t enough food for everyone, and her 10 children aren't going to school.

The family matriarch, Nassourou Yattara seems overwhelmed trying to host her extended family and feed 40 additional mouths, but she can’t send her relatives back to the north.

“These are my sisters and brothers,” Yattara said. “I have to shelter them. They can’t go somewhere else, even though I have nothing.”

But some of her family members have already gone home, fearful of what awaits them yet unwilling to stay away any longer. They’re not the only ones.

At a chaotic bus station in Bamako, some displaced northerners loaded their belongings on top of a battered green bus heading north.

In Mali, northerners are known as proud people — embarrassed to be a burden on their relatives, tired of being hungry and trapped in an expensive city, far away from their land, businesses, livestock and homes.

Haidara Cidy, a retired businessman, says that pride is driving them home, despite the danger.

“I want to be back where I belong, where I have my home,” Cidy said, “even if I do not fight personally.”

The situation in Mali couldn’t be more complicated. A coup in March created a power vacuum in the country, and several rebel groups capitalized on that. Tuareg separatist rebels declared an independent homeland in the north, but soon lost control to several radical Islamist militias. Al-Qaeda-linked militants — including the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), Ansar Dine and the al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) — are now controlling most of the north and imposing a strict form of sharia law.

Mali’s interim government, which is considered weak, has been seeking international intervention to bolster its poorly-trained, ill-equipped and undisciplined army to help oust the Islamists radicals in the north.

But displaced northerners are becomingly increasingly frustrated by what they see as lack of urgency from the international community.

“We need help,” said a Malian woman named Hawa. She didn’t want to give her full name or have her picture taken because she’s afraid to risk the safety of her family in the north.

“Our government won’t be able to manage this situation. Maybe we don’t have petrol to give to the world, we don’t have diamonds, but we are still human beings.”

Hawa was hoping for a quick military offensive to drive out the rebels and Islamist militants, and she feels betrayed by recent reports of more measured plans to train the Malian army and negotiate with warring factions.

“We feel that we are not important, our country is not important, and our lives are not important,” she said, starting to cry. “There is no priority on this. Nobody cares about it.”

At a community center in Bamako, women from northern cities gathered to share their stories. One woman cloaked in a white gown shows a photo she secretly snapped with her cellphone inside a hospital in Gao. The picture shows a boy on a cot with his amputated arm and leg wrapped in bandages.

The woman says he was punished for defending his family’s store.

“The rebels used to take all the phones because they don’t want people to take these kinds of photos,” the woman said.

A local health worker named Adama Kouyate translates for the women and runs a radio program for internally displaced persons in the capital. He says it’s a terrible situation for the people who stayed behind in the north.

“They are being killed. A lot of children cannot eat. Women cannot go out,” he said. “I think that’s a shame, it should be stopped right now.”

But the women at this community center know there’s no quick solution. And they seem defeated by that reality.

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