“We cannot live under the law of strangers”

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates some 107,000 Malians, most of them Arabs and Tuaregs, fled across the border to Burkina Faso, many leaving as early as February when the Tuareg National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) launched their first attacks against Malian government targets.

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In April Islamic groups Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) wrested control of northern Mali from the MNLA and swiftly imposed repressive Sharia law across the region, insisting women be veiled, stoning civilians to death, amputating alleged criminals, publicly flogging residents and destroying religious shrines, according to human rights groups. Several hundred children are believed to have been recruited into their forces.

Among the Malian refugees and those who are internally displaced, most of the ethnic Tuaregs have told IRIN they are too scared to return as long as these groups control the north, fearing violence and repression, but also reprisal attacks on Tuaregs.

Tuareg refugee Mohamed-Ag Ibrahim, who fled Timbuktu with his wife and seven children, told IRIN: “We fear reprisals from the community, like in the rebellion in the 1990s. And now Islamists have come… and started to judge people, cut off their hands. The ones that did not leave are stuck there... We cannot live under the law of strangers.”

Plans currently under discussion to send in a joint Malian army-ECOWAS military operation to oust the Islamists are likely to cause further displacement of civilians.

“We are very worried that further fighting will bring a new wave of refugees,” said UNHCR representative in Burkina Faso Ibrahima Coly. The Burkina Faso authorities have worked hard to accommodate arriving Malians, but have expressed concerns that they are stretched to the limit and cannot further expand their services.