African Migrants Caught in Libyan Conflict Rebuilding Lives in Mali

The West African country of Mali is going through turmoil. A military coup toppled the government in March, and a rebel movement has divided the country.

Much of that unrest began when tens of thousands of Malians flooded home from Libya last year. They’d gone there for a better living, but Libya’s uprising put an end to that. Now many of them are struggling back at home.

Crowding around a small TV set in the capital Bamako, a group of kids and adults burst out when their soccer team scores. More than 40 people live here in this series of small rooms built around a cluttered courtyard. Off to the side is a massive refrigerator, the only valuable thing Damba Koné managed to get out of Libya last spring.

For 11 years, Damba was a butcher in the village of Gatrun in southern Libya. He said there were only four butchers in town, all of them from Mali.

In early April 2011, as the Libyan conflict escalated, Damba sent his wife and four children to Tunisia and then on to Mali. Damba stayed behind to organize things.

Then one night, Damba said, seven armed men broke into his house and assaulted him. They forced him to give them the $15,000 he had hidden under his roof – his life saving.

Damba fled, getting a lift from a pickup truck into Niger a few days later. When he finally arrived back in Bamako, Damba said he had nothing left but his seven-foot-long industrial fridge.

“Everyone here in Mali knew I’d been in Libya for years. They all thought ‘he must be coming back with loads of money.’ So when I came back, relatives and neighbors all expected something from me,” Damba said. “I had to explain that I lost everything in one night and that I’ve got nothing at all.”

One year later, Damba said he’s still empty-handed. He hasn’t found a job; too many butchers here already, he explains. He can’t even afford to buy meat for his own children.

Officials say about 12,000 Malian migrant workers fled Libya last year, but the numbers are likely much higher, according to Oumar Sidibé, who works with a migrants’ advocacy group in Bamako. He said the migrants came from all over Mali. “Every region, every ethnic group sent some of their own to Libya for the promise of higher paying jobs,” he said.

Haruna Traoré worked for Western families in Tripoli. For 10 years, he cleaned, cooked, babysat, and tended gardens. He pulls out a certificate from one employer praising his “honesty and cheerfulness.”

Haruna’s last employer was an American-Ecuadorian couple who worked in Libya’s oil industry. They paid him $700 a month and put his family up in a guest house. Haruna regularly sent money home, sometimes up to $300, about five times the average monthly wage in Mali.

Now back in Bamako, Haruna said he lives off the very relatives he used to assist. His grandmother is feeding his family, and he can’t give her any money.

“They let my family stay with them. We stay one year.” Haruna said he’s ashamed. “Somebody can help you for once, twice, maybe three times, but forever? I never imagined I would be in this situation.”

Like many other migrants returning from Libya, Haruna said he’s angry at the government for doing nothing to help. But he’s even more furious at Mali’s authorities for giving a warmer welcome to a small, select group of returnees.

General Mohamed Ali is a Tuareg from Timbuktu who moved to Libya in the 1960s. (Tuaregs are a nomadic group from northern Africa.) He introduces himself as a “true general.”

Four decades of service in Muammar Gaddafi’s army earned Ali the highest military rank and a Libyan passport. Ali said he took part in Gaddafi’s African wars in Chad, Sudan, Angola, each time receiving a seven-figure bonus for his military skills. His last stand was for the Colonel himself. Ali said he fought for Gaddafi during the key battles in last year’s Libyan uprising. When the regime finally collapsed in the fall, Ali and his Tuareg battalion returned to Mali.

He said Malian authorities sent four government ministers to greet him and his men. The greeting included cash. Ali won’t say how much, but he pointed out that returning Tuareg groups received even more than his group did.

“The people of Kidal who brought weapons received more, because they were heavily armed,” Ali said. “It’s why they got more money than we did.”

Some of the estimated 2,000 Tuaregs who returned to Mali after Gaddafi’s fall brought back light and heavy artillery.

Authorities feared the returning Tuaregs would revive a long-simmering rebellion in the North. Local media reported that the Malian government lavished tens of thousands of dollars on them.

“Everybody knew about it,” said Amadou Waigalo, who works on migrants’ affairs at the government Ministry of Malians abroad. “The Malian workers who were in Libyan for economic reasons protested because they got nothing and they thought that was unfair. But the financial help the Tuaregs received was political. The government was trying to appease them.”

That didn’t work out.

Tuaregs attacked a military base in North Mali in mid-January. By early April, they had taken control of the North’s main towns and declared the independent State of Awazad. General Ali, who’s part of the Azawad Liberation Movement, said it’s long overdue.

“Don’t we have the right to independence?” he said, adding that his people have been fighting for freedom for decades.

General Ali left Mali during the first major Tuareg rebellion that broke out shortly after the country gained independence in 1960. Over the following decades, thousands of Malian Tuaregs found refuge, and a warm welcome, in Libya, with Gaddafi portraying himself as a champion of the Tuaregs’ cause.

But then Gaddafi fell, and the Tuaregs came home.

Now the Tuaregs and other Malians say the turmoil at home is a direct result of the regime change in Libya. Some call it collateral damage; others blame NATO for failing to anticipate how disruptive the collapse of a 42-year old regime would be for the Sahel region.

Oumar Sidibé, the advocate for Malian migrants, said many African voices, including the African Union, raised concerns about NATO’s intervention in Libya, but the international community didn’t listen. “They wanted Gaddafi out whatever it took, even if his fall brought chaos to the whole region.”

Now Mali is split in two with no diplomatic or military solution in sight. A military coup ousted the government in Bamako in March, and the newly appointed interim president is struggling to transfer power back to civilian rule.

Haruna Traore, the Malian migrant who returned home with nothing, said he fled the conflict in Libya last year only to find his own country sliding towards war.

“Where I will go again?” he asked. “I don’t know where I’ll run to hide myself and my family.

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