Mali Conflict: A Disrupted Past, an Uncertain Future


By Adel Sarkozi, CARE

Mali Conflict: A Disrupted Past, an Uncertain Future image 1
Haussa and Komjo in the background. © 2013 Alpha Cisse/CARE

In an outer suburb of Bamako – Mali's capital - with half finished buildings on dusty dirt roads covered in litter, you enter a two-storey house. Like many other derelict houses in the neighborhood, you're told, it is inhabited by "Northerners."

They are most often women with their children, or just children, torn apart from the rest of the family and forced to flee the Timbuktu region, its violence and chaos, its dread-filled streets, empty shops, schools and health centers shut down since last April.

Their stories sound the same, with small variations, punctured by half sentences, and words, such as – "fear," "had to flee," "on the road for four days," "could not take anything with us," "husband left behind," "life turned upside down." They are probably the best summed up by Komjo, a grandmother in her 60s:

"Everything that was good in my life, I had to leave behind. I live on memories, those before the fighting," she says.

I find her seated on the floor, surrounded by younger women and their children, some her relatives, some neighbors from Timbuktu. There are about 40 of them in the house, having joint relatives or just good-hearted people. At night, they cram in two semi-bare rooms, and on a bare balcony.

As every morning since she fled to Bamako six months ago, Komjo is bending over a large plate full of small shells. ’˜She is reading the future," says Haussa, a woman in her 30s, seated on her right.

"So what do the shells say today?," I ask.

I expect her to say something about her future, that of Timbuktu – liberated just the day before – or that of Mali, but she starts telling me about my own future. And from the way she touches upon my past, I cannot help believing that her predictions might be true as well.

When I ask about Timbuktu, she says, "Only God knows…We cannot be sure." She starts tossing the shells in front of her for a few seconds, and then she adds, "But I would go back straight away, this very instance if I could."

For the first time, there is passion in her voice, and a shade of smile on her face neatly lined by the trace of time, tucked under a bright headscarf.

"We will go back as soon as there is complete peace there," Haussa picks up the story.

She arrived in Bamako on January 10, after a four-day journey, most of it by boat. The story of her family's journey over the past seven months is intricate, marked by painful decisions. Last May, Haussa and her husband decided to send their three older children – between 7 and 12 years old – to Bamako, in the safe hands of helpful relatives. The parents were worried about the children's safety after violence erupted in Timbuktu last April, but they also wanted the children to continue going to school.

"In Timbuktu," she says, "there has been nothing since last April – no schools, no clinics, no electricity, no water, no services whatsoever. It was hard for the children."

They kept only their youngest son with them – Abdul, a playful, 2 year old. Then, a few weeks ago, fearing the worst, her husband insisted that Haussa leave with their little one. The two set off leaving the husband and father behind. He stayed because he was worried that their house would be vandalized.

Abdul found the journey difficult, Haussa explains, and often cried out of tiredness, pleading for them to stop.

Haussa pulls Abdul over to her lap while Abdamane, the eldest son, joins them on the floor. When asked what he misses about his life in Timbuktu, Abdamane says shyly, "Everything … my school … my friends … my father, most of all."

His story is sadly too common – of families torn apart, predicting a future just as uncertain and disrupted, they say, as their recent past.

A bright, articulate boy, Salif, is taking refuge in the same house with two of his younger brothers. School is important to him, he says. He wants to become an agricultural engineer, and is now in his last year of high school. Last year, he spent five months out of school, until he too fled from Timbuktu.

I turn back to Komjo who is still staring at her shells.

"More news?" I ask.

She pauses, eyes still cast on the shells.

"Life is hard here. Everything is expensive. We live from one day to another. We have to borrow money, cope with whatever little we have. When we heard Timbuktu was freed, we were filled with joy. It was unbelievable. There is little left there. It will be hard, but we want to go back … as soon as we can," she finally says.

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