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Refugees

Malian refugees feel ‘lost’ in their own country

Out of fear of rebels, Islamists and terrorists some 475,000 Malians have fled northern Mali within a year. But far away from their home, life has become a daily struggle. Now many of them are considering a return.

Aisha Yattara's two-month-old son starts to cry as his young mother tries to calm him. It only seems to work for a minute, and then the crying continues. "The child is sick today" Aisha says. She knows she is in dire need of a doctor, but she lacks the money. Her last hope is her elder sister. "If she comes and brings money, then we can go to the doctor and have the little one checked."

For months now, Yattara and her family have been lacking money for basic essentials.

 Islamic group Ansar Dine standing guard at the Kidal Airport in northern Mali. AFP PHOTO / ROMARIC OLLO HIEN (Photo credit should read Romaric Hien/AFP/GettyImages)

Mali Islamists banned all sorts of entertainment including videos

Since June 2012, the young woman with her husband, her mother and ten brothers and sisters together with two of their own young children, have been living in the Malian capital, Bamako. They ended up in the big city after being forced to flee their home town of Gao in northern Mali because of the on-going political situation.

Gao was initially captured by the Tuareg-led rebels, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) in spring 2012. A little later, the Islamist group Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), replaced the MNLA and introduced the strict Muslim Sharia law. Life became unbearable for Yattara and her family, and they were left with only one option - fleeing to the capital Bamako.

Tough big city life

Aisha's mother Fatouma Arbi says she simply can not cope with life in the big city. "For someone with no job Bamako is a difficult place. My kids don't have jobs, I don't have a job and my husband is dead."

There hasn't been a regular and reliable support for Aisha's family and the other remaining internally displaced people. They survive off their savings or depend on their relatives. According to recent estimates by the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), more than 300,000 people have left their homes to other regions of Mali. Almost 175,000 more have fled to neighboring countries.'

Map of Mali showing Bamako, Kidali and Gao

The UN has recently warned of a severe water shortage in Gao

Most of those displaced are likely to be found in Bamako or the cities of Mopti and Sevare. They live either with relatives or in rented houses, but most of them feel neglected and forgotten. “Food is sometimes brought to us by a few people,” Fatouma Arbi complains. “I have a brother who lives in Bamako but he has brought food to us only three or four times, not every day," she added.

Rent is the biggest concern for the widow. She found a small apartment with three rooms in Bako Djikoroni, a small village located outside the capital. She has to pay 50,000 CFA (about $98 or 76 euros) for accommodation. "I'm already two months behind my monthly payment. They will surely throw me out, but I do not know how to pay it," she says.

Fears of double displacement

The UNCHR says it is well aware of the plight of internal refugees. Eduardo Cue, the agency's spokesman in Bamako, says that the organization is reviewing whether to cater for the rental costs. In his view the expensive life in Bamako has driven some refugees back to their northern home.

People hold a sign reading 'Thank you for the liberation' in Ansongo, a town south of the northern Malian city of Gao. AFP PHOTO / KAMBOU SIA (Photo credit should read KAMBOU SIA/AFP/Getty Images)

Most Gao residents welcomed the French military intervention

Cities like Gao and Timbuktu have become reasonably safe, following the French military intervention which pushed the Islamists out of their strongholds. However tensions could rise as the West African country gears for presidential elections scheduled for July 28.

The UN is warning against a hasty return. "We would like to see the government institutions return to the north, and then we can have order and normalcy," said Cue.  This could still take several months.

Fatouma Arbi does not want to wait any longer. She would like to immediately leave Bamako, a place she involuntarily found herself and go back to Gao -leaving behind the constant worry about food and rent arrears. "They say it's better now in Gao, so I'm now trying to get money to go back,” she says hopefully.

“If I had the money, I would go back this evening."

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