With well over one-third of its 17 million citizens in need of emergency food assistance, Niger is a less-than-ideal place to flee to safety and relief. Nevertheless, that's exactly what more than 41,000 people from neighboring Mali have done in recent months, according to the UN Refugee Agency
Like every country in the western Sahel, Mali is experiencing a rapidly worsening food crisis. Unlike its neighbors, however, Mali is also experiencing a violent political conflict that has forced more than 320,000 Malians from their homes. Despite the fact they simply don't have the resources to support new arrivals, reports indicate Malians are greeted in Niger with kindness and understanding.
CARE Niger's Ibrahim Niandou recently visited some Malian refugees in Niger and shared some of their stories with his CARE colleagues. The dignity and grace of the people Ibrahim spoke to are inspiring.
Omar: From Aderamboukan to Hamatta camp
By Ibrahim Niandou, CARE Niger
May 16, 2012
“Right now, I don”t have anything to give to my family for dinner – but we will overcome our current problems, at least we are safe here,’ mutters Omar, his gaze lost in the crimson lights of sunset.
Omar Intifelan, 33, is a Malian refugee in the camp of Hamatta, about ten kilometers away from Banibangou, Niger. Omar lived in the town of Andaramboukan, in Mali. There he had a plot of land which gave him enough vegetables and resources to fund his marriage with Fatima, now 29 years old, and to cover the essential needs of his family.
The couple has four children. The oldest, Amoullaka, 13, attended fifth grade at the school in Anderamboukan. Back home, the three other children, Adissa, Mohamed and Tamissa, between the ages of 1 and 7, entertained the family endlessly with their noisy but joyful games. The happiest moments were those when the entire family relaxed in the garden, amid cabbages and lettuce.
Happiness ended abruptly for Omar and his family one day in January, when armed men attacked their village.
Like many other families, Omar fled with his wife and his four children towards the only nearby destination that seemed safe: Niger. They initially settled in the village of Chinnegodar, across the border but only 18 kilometers away from their village. Their stay lasted for four months, and proved difficult.
“We had left our home without carrying anything. We depended on other people”s charity to survive but every day we hoped that things would calm down back home and we would be able to return,’ recalls Omar. “Unfortunately, fighting has only worsened and more families kept arriving from Mali. Given the close proximity to the border and the possible spillover of armed fighting, the Nigerien government advised us to leave Chinnegodar. It is so that we arrived here, to Hamatta camp,’ Omar explains.
In barely two weeks, the refugees have created a real village at the outskirts of Banibangou. Hamatta camp”s hastily erected huts host 2,295 people, including 1,265 women and 354 children under the age of five. The camp residents hail from different areas in northern Mali, such as Aderamboukan, Ansongo, Gao, Kidal and Menaka.
The people of Hamatta camp live day-to-day thanks to the solidarity of the people of Banibangou, who were already badly affected by the prevalent food crisis.
“It is terrible to find ourselves so dependent on others, without the bare minimum to live decently, and without knowing until when this will last. The news coming out of our native Mali is not reassuring. On top of that, my daughter Amoullaka does not go to school anymore, which further compromises our future,’ laments Omar.
Almost 13,500 Malian refugees and Nigerien returnees are now living precariously in different sites around Banibangou. In addition, 40,497 are living in similar conditions in the areas of Abala, Ayorou, Ouallam and Tilia.
“People here are hungry; they have nothing,’ points out the camp leader, Aminata Welt Issa Fassan. “Without emergency aid, we risk losing some of them.’
“This are tough times; very tough ones,’ concludes Omar, “but I hope that human solidarity will allow us to overcome these problems and that in the near future we will be able return to our village of Aderamboukan and to the happiness we used to enjoy.’
CARE is assisting refugees, returnees and vulnerable locals in Banibangou with food and essential household equipment. For more information about CARE's work in Niger, visit www.CARE.org.