By Kate Thomas
01/03/2013 - Most of the 70 families at the 'Hotel des Chauffeurs' IDP camp on the outskirts of the central Mali town of Sevare have been sheltering there for at least nine months, after they fled fighting that began in Mali's north in March last year. Many of the children are now enrolled in school, but while basic needs are taken care of, people wonder what the future will bring, and how - or if - they will ever be able to go home. Kate Thomas meets with them.
Aissata Toure wrings the last drops of water from a batch of wet laundry and hangs shirts, dresses and children's outfits out to dry, hooping them over the branches of a nearby tree. 38-year-old Aissata, who has four children under the age of ten, brought her family from their hometown of Gao – in Mali's dry, desert-framed north – to the town of Sevare, about 550km further south, in March last year, when Tuareg independence fighters, and then Islamist rebels, took control of Gao.
Living in tents at the Hotel des Chauffeurs site at the outskirts of Sevare © Kate Thomas
"We came with nothing besides the outfits we were wearing and the keys to the house," Aissata says, emptying suds of soapy water from her laundry tub. "My husband was away at the time, so I gathered the children together and we ran from the house. We hid in the bush for days, and then we found a car whose driver offered to take us south. We wanted to take the bus, but it was too expensive – the prices had doubled," she says.
Aissata and her four children are among the 70 families living in tents and outbuildings on the outskirts of Sevare, at the 'Hotel des Chauffeurs'. A few metres from the town's main bus station, the site was designed as a hotel for truck drivers overnighting in Sevare on their way from the storied towns of Timbuktu and Gao in the north to Bamako, ten hours further south. Constructed in 2012, the hotel was about to be inaugurated when conflict broke out in the north. Now the rooms of the main hotel building are inhabited by displaced families from Mali's north who use its palm-lined courtyard for doing laundry and cooking. There's a clinic on-site, staffed by doctors and a nurse, and families have access to clean water for washing and drinking.
"The children are healthy enough, but I'm not able to take care of them in the same way that I would at home," Aissata adds. "My youngest daughter, Awa, was sick when we first arrived. She didn't eat much when we were hiding in the bush. But I've been making her porridge three times a day, and she put on some weight. I was so worried," she says.
A displaced mother with her child © Kate Thomas
According to Modibou Toukara, the director of the government-backed Commission for Displaced People in Sevare and Mopti, 86 people – including babies and young children – suffered from malnutrition when they arrived at the site.
"UN agencies and NGOs have been supporting the families, distributing food and non-food items, and the 86 people who were malnourished are now healthy," he says. "This site is only for families who don't have anywhere else to go. The majority of the displaced people in the area are staying with friends or relatives," he adds.
According to government figures, there are 23,000 displaced people in the Mopti area, 28 percent of whom are children. About 40 percent of children have been able to enrol in schools in the area, but most of them don't have uniforms and their parents struggle to find their transport fares.
Seven-year-old Husseyni, who lives at the site with his parents, grandmother and younger siblings, is not enrolled in school. He spends his afternoons helping his mother take care of the younger children, or playing football with other boys his age. "In Gao, I liked going to school," he says, taking a colourful cutting of fabric and swaddling baby Sekou, who is six months old. "I'd like to go to school here, but the place is far away, so for now I have to wait," he says.
Husseyni's grandmother, who has heart problems, was treated by the site's nurse last week, after suffering palpitations and angina. She was given a prescription for two kinds of medicine that the clinic does not stock; without enough money to pay for a trip to a pharmacy, and the cost of the medicines themselves, she's worried that her health will continue to deteriorate.
Although the clinic treats basic medical conditions, there is a clear need for more comprehensive treatment, and for greater access to medical drugs. Toukara says that many people – including children – suffered psychological trauma in the north.
"Even the children witnessed awful things," he says. "One young girl was raped, she had been imprisoned by Islamist fighters for 25 days. She's had counselling and we're also offering support to her family and friends. It is important for them to understand that it wasn't her fault she was raped and that she mustn't be ostracised by the community here because of it."
In the evenings, young people such as 16-year-old Fatima Abramana gather to watch television in a room that was designed to be the restaurant of the truck drivers' hotel. Fatima arrived at the site last April after travelling from Timbuktu with her cousin, who has a three-year-old daughter.
The Hotel des Chauffeurs site - a temporary home for children from Northern Mali © Kate Thomas
"In Timbuktu I was at school, and I was able to enrol in classes here so I'm not missing out on my education," she says, as her cousin braids her hair. "But it's not the same. I can go into town, but there's nothing to do there when I don't have much money. My friends and I walk around and talk about what's happened."
Fatima had never spent a night away from home until she came to Sevare. Now she's helping her cousin take care of her daughter, and is growing up faster than she'd expected.
"I miss my mum and dad so much," she says. "My dad works as a photographer back home. Normally he has lots of business; people come to get their portraits taken when they get married. But now life is hard and nobody is getting married...when we talk on the phone he says he doesn't have enough to eat."
Alpha Baba Traoré, Programme Director of SOS Children's Villages in Mopti and Sevare, says the central Mali region has been hit by a "triple crisis."
"When things got really bad in the north, Mopti and Sevare became transit zones," he says. "The region was already vulnerable after a bad harvest last year resulted in a food security crisis. Then displaced families arrived from the north, putting additional burden on supplies here. And then routes to the north became blocked, limiting food supplies that usually come from there. The population here has swelled but the resources available have decreased."
Many of the families living at the 'Hotel des Chauffeurs' say they're deeply concerned about the future. Among them is 32-year-old Binta Maiga, a nursery school teacher from Gao, who shares a tent with her husband, two children and four nieces and nephews.
"I never imagined having to raise the children somewhere like this," she admits, soothing two-year-old Malick to sleep in her arms. "In Gao we had a nice house and although sometimes there were hardships, life was mostly good. I'm worried about the impact on the kids, and I'm worried what will happen when we eventually go home. I don't even know if our house is still standing," she says.
Many people at the site say they're eager to return to their homes as soon as it's safe to do so. For now, the road between Sevare and Gao is closed, and even travelling by boat along the river Niger is fraught with difficulties – parts of the river are closed, and there are military checkpoints at regular intervals.
Another risk for children: landmines. This poster hangs on a wall at SOS Children's Village in Socoura/Mopti © Kate Thomas
"Some people want to go back, but we're telling them to wait," says Doumbay Farka Maiga, a displaced man from Gao who has been elected president of the site. "Some roads have been mined and there are still risks. We need to draw up a plan that will allow us to go home without risking falling back into poverty."
Maiga, who worked as a trader in Gao, says everyone hopes that will happen soon. "People here have the basic things they need, but everyone has a lot of time on their hands. The men aren't working; they spend their days playing games. They are bored. Most of the women and children here have never travelled before, so they've had to adjust to that," he says.
But, he adds, "we know that sooner or later, this will be over. We just hope the war ends soon so we can get back to what we know, so we can go back home. We don't know what we'll find when we get back; some of the houses there have been destroyed. And as for the things we left behind, we don't know whether we'll ever find them again."