MENTEO REFUGEE CAMP, BURKINA FASO, 22 May 2012: It was 5pm when it started to rain, the wide grey sky looming lower and lower over the flat red earth; a swirl of mist and red dust rising from nowhere; huge rusty drops hitting the car windows. Streams of water began to rush along the track, the rivulets and puddles quickly stirring the surface into a quagmire. The driver swerved off, picking his way through the mud and peering into the suddenly opaque distance as the wheels roared and the windscreen wipers whirred ineffectually.
And then to the right, I saw it. The low grey tents scattered across the savannah wasteland, clinging to the disintegrating ground as the downpour crashed down. They seemed fragile beneath the forbidding sky, flimsily fashioned from scraps of cloth and sticks, hardly sturdy enough to withstand a gust of wind, let alone a storm. There was no one around, only a lone child who bowed her head against the rain, pulling a fluttering cloth over her head, and a figure who ducked for shelter through a slit in one of the tents. Thunder rolled and lightening flickered. In this post-apocalyptic landscape, the tents appeared to blend with the grey half-light.
This was my first view of Mentao refugee camp in northern Burkina Faso, the makeshift home to 5000 people, mainly Tamacheck-speaking Tuaregs, who have fled over the nearby border from Mali. I can honestly say that it was only at that moment, during a hot African rainstorm, that I began to realise what hunger actually means. What it might mean to be a pregnant woman surviving with your three kids in a makeshift tent in a country that isn't your own home, miles and miles from the nearest town or electrical point or source of water.
When you see it for real it hits you hard, in the gut. I was afraid too, feeling the confines of my safe, cosy world melting away into a lawless realm of rebellion and hunger and remote unpassable roads where kidnappers could strike at any moment. And I felt shock; shock to find thousands of people actually living in these bewilderingly awful conditions, so awful that even when you see it there before you, you can hardly believe it's actually real.
There had been worries about coming. That morning the security chief in Ouagadougou had told us of a Level 2 risk of kidnapping. Do not, he had emphasised, go into the camp after 5pm. Soum is one of the most vulnerable provinces in Burkina and so near the Malian border that tensions are high. That night I go to bed in Djibo firmly locking my two doors and vaguely pondering whether the kidnappers would be able to break down the first metal door. As I wrote the first paragragh of this in that dim, strip-lighted room, my heart quickened every time a door rattled.
There are 61,000 refugees in Burkina Faso, spread across Mentao Camp, Gandafabou camp and Damba Camp. The following morning the sun broke high and hot at half past four. Arriving at Menteo, it was an altogether better place in comparison to the previous night. We took our shoes off and knelt on a mat outside one of the tents with the camp chiefs. They were wizened Tuareg men who draped their multi-coloured tagelmust loosely across their faces so that all I could see were pairs of soulful black eyes. As I started taking photographs they beckoned me over; take me, and me, they joked, posing and giggling.
The tents, which close up were made from bits of woven matting, cloth, twigs, sticks and UN plastic sheeting, were spread at civilised distances. Plan International's latrines were obvious, blue plastic-covered, box-shaped huts where people slipped discreetly inside. Basseta waleta Sidi, 20, seven months pregnant and sitting elegantly on a floor mat inside her tent as a tiny goat played in the corner, told me that the toilets are the one thing that makes her life a bit better in the camp. She is afraid of giving birth here, she added. "I don't have enough to feed my one child, let alone two."
The refugees went about their morning routines. A mother grabbed her daughter and brushed her long, shining black hair. The little girl stood obediently, grinning at me, as her mum tamed it into a neat bun. A woman scrubbed clothes in a soapy basin. A group of boys clustered around me and one chirped at me in good French. His name is Mohamed, he said, and he is 13. "I'm bored. I want to go back to school. There's nothing to do here." When I asked him if he was scared when he left Mali, his eyes shadowed over and he dropped his head. "Yes," he muttered.
The land was dry and red and hard and by 9am the headachy sun beat down from the already white hot sky, heavy and windless. Kone Dramane, Plan International's field co-ordinator here in Mentao and the other camps in Some district, says: "The funny thing is that rainy season comes in June, but this will only make things worse. Once the roads turn to mud, nothing goes in and nothing goes out. It makes things very difficult."
By the time the UN's head of humanitarian affairs Valerie Amos arrived for her visit, flanked by a convoy of 25 4by4s and approximately 45 assorted officials, the refugees - men, women and children - had gathered beneath a cloth canopy set up for the occasion, their robes a bright patchwork of pastels across the dust-coloured landscape. As Valerie walked by, the women begin to ululate and clap; one lady in a bright scarlet robe started to dance and the others followed suit, flickering their arms. There was a collective murmur of excitement as the world seemed, all of a sudden, to come to this forgotten corner of the West African Sahel. For a moment I felt everyone lifted by a collective sense of hope. Perhaps they'll help after all, I could feel the crowd thinking. Perhaps we'll be ok.
After the speeches, as I wandered in the crowd, taking photographs, an old man tapped me on the shoulder. "Merci," he croaked, pushing his ancient face that was cracked and fissured like tree bark close to mine, so that I could see the brown stains on his disappearing teeth. Then he added: "If you hadn't come, I'm sure we'd be forgotten."
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