Mauritania, an Arab country whose border with the Republic of Mali extends for more than 1,000 km [621 miles], has been deeply influenced by the French war on its neighbor, even despite the policy adopted by the Mauritanian government of distancing itself from the conflict next door. Moreover, the suffering of the provinces bordering Mali has been deepened by a severe drought that has followed the absence of rainfall local farmers and herdsmen depend on.
Loss of grazing, following the loss of tourism
Since Mali has not been blessed with a port, almost 90% of its imports come into the country through seaports in Mauritania (the poorest country in Africa). Mauritanians have been influenced by the war in ways beyond the effect on Mauritanian exports like fish, construction materials and Malian imports like grains and citrus fruits. The tourist industry has declined, most notably due to the French decision in 2007 to cancel the Paris-Dakar rally. Nearly 50% of the stations on that rally had been situated on Mauritanian territory; over the course of the race's eight days, it served as an income-generating event from which Mauritanians in the country's north and east profited handsomely. But that loss does not compare to the results of the war.
Each year at the beginning of May, the search for pastureland begins in neighboring Mali. Mauritanians — who, according to official statistics, own more than 20 million camels, cows and sheep — had grown accustomed to making seasonal visits to Malian way stations that enjoy an earlier rainy season. There, they traditionally feed the majority of their livestock. This tradition dates back centuries; it is one of the fundamental links between the peoples of the two countries, along with constant communication through long-established commercial and ethnic ties. Mauritania does not experience rain before July, and as a result relies upon the pastures of its neighbors. Arabs in northern Mali look upon Mauritanians as ethnic and tribal extensions of their own community. Sayidi al-Mukhar, one of the region's most prominent spiritual leaders (whose grave was recently desecrated by Salafists in northern Mali) descends from the local Kunta tribes and their ancestors. Indeed, Mukhtar's ancestors and some of his descendants live in Mauritania
Malian — and Mauritanian — refugees
Malian refugees continued to flock to Mauritanian territory during the period when armed Islamist groups held control of northern Mali in 2012. However, with the beginning of the French war in the second week of January 2013, the issue of the internally displaced began to grow more acute. On the humanitarian level, Mauritania took in more than 200,000 refugees. The suffering of refugees fleeing the horror of the fighting steadily worsened after it was discovered that Mauritanians were exploiting the opportunities proffered by [the distribution of international] aid by abandoning their villages in eastern Mauritania and registering as refugees in host camps in order to receive the aid packages being distributed by international relief agencies. The underlying cause is attributable to both the area's poverty and the severity of the recent drought.
Today, after much fierce fighting, the refugee camps in Mberra and Bassiknou in eastern Mauritania have appeared incapable of taking care of their original inhabitants. How then can they deal with the newcomers (in addition to their housing crisis, which reduced the food rations offered by international organizations working in the camps)? It has forced the Mauritanian government to intervene and distribute aid in the city, aid that is needed by Mauritania's own poor. In Mauritanians' view, the latter are naturally more deserving.
Refusing to go back
With the decline of armed Islamist groups in northern Mali — especially in the cities of Kidal, Timbuktuo and Gao — and despite the fact that some refugees have returned to northern Mali, the majority of Malian refugees in eastern Mauritania have refused to return to their villages because of the [campaigns of] ethnic cleansing to which they and their families have been subjected by the Arabs and the Tuareg. Hundreds of female Malian refugees have gone out in protest to express their refusal to return to their country. Displaced women in the Mberra camp in eastern Mauritania have said that they are determined not to return to their homes in northern Mali until an agreement is reached between the government in Bamako and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), based in the city of Kidal, in the most northern part of Mali.
Sickness and malnutrition
The refugees are now suffering from the threat posed by severe malnutrition. Human rights organizations say that women and children are at risk of dying as a result. Doctors Without Borders estimates that one out of every five children among the refugees in the Mberra camp (in which 55,000 souls reside) suffers from malnutrition. They also stress that 70% of all children in the camp have not been vaccinated against measles. Amid all these developments, Mauritania hastened at the beginning of April to dispatch a series of delegations to the Mauritanian Statistics Agency, intent upon officially determining the numbers of the refugee population.
Over the course of the last 50 years, the people of northern Mali have never known any stability worth mentioning. In 1963, they rebelled against Modibo Keita, the former president of Mali who subjected them to brutal repression as well as campaigns of genocide. In the early 1990s, the former leftist (and current head of Ansar Dine) Iyad Ag Ghali launched a rebellion against the government in Bamako. Today, these Arab and Tuareg people are paying the price in terms of a surrounding region that is both in tumult and preoccupied with them.
The leaders of the Arab-Azawad Movement criticized this more than once, and issued repeated calls to the neighboring Arab countries to intervene, since the authorities in Bamako were both rulers and rivals. Perhaps the only winner from the war in neighboring Mauritania are the Mauritanian media outlets, which now constitute the only rivals to the war lords (including the Mauritanian ones), and some Malian former students from Mauritanian universities.
Translated by Al-Monitor