Mali: Returning to Timbuktu

3 May, 2013
Abdou (centre) and his family wait for a boat to take them back to Timbuktu. For the past year, they have been living in the town of Mopti, seeking refuge from the conflict further north. Credit: OCHA/Ulrike Dassler
Abdou (centre) and his family wait for a boat to take them back to Timbuktu. For the past year, they have been living in the town of Mopti, seeking refuge from the conflict further north. Credit: OCHA/Ulrike Dassler

Three days have passed and Abdou Dicko and his family are still waiting at the port of Mopti, by the Niger River, in central Mali. Abdou, his wife Fatoumata, his second wife, their six children, his six brothers and three nieces are waiting; all are anxious for the boat to take them home to Timbuktu in the north.

In April 2012, as armed groups advanced, they fled south to the town of Mopti. They left everything behind: their land, their houses, and even some members of their extended family. But today, although the security situation in the north remains perilous, all they want is to go home.

“We simply cannot afford to live as displaced people in Mopti anymore,” explains Abdou. “Everything has become so expensive. We cannot pay the rent and we are afraid we will be put out in the street. In Timbuktu, we have our own house; we have food, fish and rice. Everything is cheaper.”

In Mopti, the family rented a small home, and received some assistance from humanitarian agencies. But it wasn’t enough.

At the port, and at Mopti’s bus station, staff from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) interview travellers and ask them the reasons for their departure and their destination. In the last week of March, over 690 people told them that, like Abdou and his family, they were on their way home.

Since 2012, conflict between armed groups and government forces has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. More than 280,000 have sought refuge within Mali, in towns like Mopti. A further 173,700 Malians are living in neighbouring countries, says the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Risky return

According to IOM, in the first quarter of 2013, over 14,400 returned to the north. Aid agencies are concerned that those who have made it home are not finding much support in the way of administrative structures or social services. For example, only around 320 of the 1,030 schools in the cities of Timbuktu and Gao are up and running.

At the beginning of April, OCHA opened an office in Timbuktu. Since then it has been working with other agencies to quickly assess the social services that exist, as well as the immediate needs of those returning. Until very recently, the security situation did not allow for such assessments to take place.

"The only people who had regular incomes in the north were civil servants,” explained Amadou Kola, IOM’s representative in Mopti. “The money they spent locally was an important factor in the economy. (But) as public administration has not yet returned to the north, the markets are missing this essential resource.”

UN agencies and their humanitarian partners are providing some assistance to the returnees. The World Food Programme, for example, reached 125,700 people who had returned to the north with emergency food supplies in March.

Perversely, this lack of social services, coupled with insecurity and food shortages, is causing many of those who remained in the north over the past year to finally leave and head south. In the first three months of the year, over 23,500 left the north for the south for places like Mopti or further on to the capital Bamako. More are still fleeing the north than returning.

“We had nothing to eat”

Forty-three year old Saula Boré is another of those displaced now returning to the north. He has already found a space in one of the boats in Mopti and will return to his home in Niafouké, close to Timbuktu, with his family. He is skinny and weak and does not know how many kilos he lost since he fled to Mopti one year ago.

“When I was in Mopti, I kept on looking for a job. I pushed carts to earn some money. But even with that job we often did not have anything to eat,” says Saula. “We do not have any family in the Mopti region.

“In Timbuktu it will be easier for us. I see more and more people going back. I heard that attacks are continuing, but I have to prepare the rice paddies before the rainy season.”

A few minutes later, the boat leaves, filled with people ready to return home. The boat must pass a checkpoint on the Niger River before 6 p.m. After that, boats are not able dock at or leave Mopti’s port. Mali is still in a state of emergency.

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