Mali refugees: happy return but food insecurity

A difficult comeback

Tethered to the roof of a crowded bus in Gao's former "Sharia Square", suitcases and boxes carry what few belongings the Maiga family could take as they fled when the town was overrun by jihadists.
Nine months later Bibata and her children are back, after northern Mali's largest city was liberated by a French-led intervention that drove the Islamist occupation out of the region's main cities and back into the vast desert.
But they face a new crisis as part of a massive wave of hundreds of refugees that "poses serious problems for food security", according to Almahadi Ag Akeratane, head of Malian charity Tassaght, which is helping the returnees.
Bibata Maiga, a tall but slender woman of 47, breathes deeply after an arduous two-day journey in 40°C (104°F) heat on the bus from the town of Sevare in central Mali.
She watches her 19-year-old son Aziz unload suitcases, boxes and bags of onions, a total of just 10 items of luggage, flanked by her younger boys Alassane, 12, and Abdulai, eight.
Bibata wears three blankets her sons had slept under the previous night at a checkpoint. Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, her husband, a Malian soldier, has come to meet her, having made the trip a few days earlier.
With no space on north-bound buses from Bamako, the Maiga family were forced to wait three days at the bus station in Sevare before they could catch a ride.
France launched a military operation on January 11 to prevent groups linked to Al-Qaeda that had occupied northern Mali for nine months from pushing south and threatening the capital Bamako.
Around 170,000 Malians have fled the region to neighbouring countries and 260,000 others have been displaced internally since early 2012, according to the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Gao had about 90,000 inhabitants, but Tassaght estimates that around 80 percent fled the Islamist invasion.
"There isn't a single family that isn't missing someone," said local councillor Yacouba Maiga.
As Bibata and her family complete the final part of the journey to their modest house on foot, women come up to her and take her by the hand, wishing her a happy return.
"The streets are quiet," says Aziz, suddenly hit by the void left by the displaced as the family carry their belongings under a blazing sun.
But soon these streets will teem with life once more, an improved security outlook in Gao over the last two weeks convincing its inhabitants to come home. Free buses returning the displaced
Like many families of public servants and functionaries, the Maigas quickly fled in June last year when Al-Qaeda offshoot the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) defeated ethnic Tuareg rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) to take Gao.
"We were afraid they would kill us," says Bibata.
Finally the family sees the blue walls and dirt floor of their small home and a smile lights up Bibata's face as she is reunited with friends, her sisters and a niece.
Asked if she can pick up where she left off nine months ago, Bibata is surprised, as if she hasn't had time to consider the future.
"We have to take things gradually. At the moment, we have no money," she says.
On the forms that Tassaght makes the returning displaced Malians fill out there is a section asking what they need the most, and the answer is almost always the same: food.
"We are lacking the basic necessities. Flour, milk, oil and sugar normally come from Algeria, but the border was closed and everything stopped. Gao market no longer exists and it's hard to get rice from the south because the road was closed for several weeks," says Ag Akeratane, the Tassaght head.
As a result, the price of a carton of milk has doubled to 34,000 CFA francs (52 euros / 68 dollars).
Yet people are nevertheless being encouraged to return. For three days, Radio Aadar Koima has been broadcasting an offer of free buses for Gao residents who want to make the journey back home from Bamako.
But it can be a difficult return, according to Boubacar Toure, the director of the station, who warned that many find when they get back to Gao their homes and businesses have been looted.
Bibata, meanwhile, takes a moment to enjoy her own homecoming.
"We are born in Gao, we grew up in Gao," she insists.
"This is our home and I'm not leaving again."