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Goudebou Camp, Burkina Faso -
For the many Malians who have fled to Burkina Faso in recent days, facing life in a refugee camp won out over the horrors of war, after already suffering through occupation by hardline Islamist rebels.
Ismael Ag Cherif and his wives and children are among the 5 000 Malian refugees who have sought shelter at the sprawling Goudebou refugee camp in northern Burkina Faso.
They arrived last week after a 32-hour journey from their home in Dore, a town located about 80 kilometres south-east of the city of Gao in rebel-held Malian territory.
“We lived in hell with sharia imposed on us by the Islamists,” the blue-turbanned father said, speaking in Tamashek, the language of the nomadic Tuareg people.
Islamist militants and Tuareg separatists seized Mali's vast desert north in March 2012. The two sides then had a falling-out and the Islamists gained the upper hand, imposing their harsh version of sharia, or Islamic law, on the territory under their control.
When the French military began bombing raids to halt the rebels' advance into the government-controlled south, “the fire” threatened to fall “on our heads”, Ag Cherif told AFP.
“This second hell... had to be avoided at all costs,” he said of his decision to leave Mali, as he stood amid rows of white tents emblazoned with the blue logo of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR - a rare speck of colour in the surrounding barren, brown landscape.
Iyad Ag Hadega, 40, arrived at the camp on Friday after fleeing the village of Intillit, about 120 kilometres southeast of Gao, where he said Islamists from the MUJAO rebel group (the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa) “were blending in with residents to avoid being attacked”.
“They recruit the young,” he added, while fellow camp resident Ansarahoui Ag Albacher said he was lucky to have saved his son and young nephew from “forced recruitment” by the Islamist fighters.
Bousse Wallet Houssa, mother to a three-year-old girl, was anxiously waiting for news from her husband, who was travelling with his herd.
“I'm afraid the MUJAO people will intercept him along the way, take his animals and force him to join their group,” said the young woman, wearing the camp's plastic bracelet for newcomers who haven't been officially registered yet.
While many at the camp said they hoped for a speedy “liberation” of northern Mali, many of the new refugees said they worried about abuses by the Malian army as it pushed north with the backing of French troops.
Such potential reprisals could especially be aimed at lighter-skinned residents, such as the Tuareg or Arabs, some of whom joined with the Islamists, they said.
“Under the cover of the army, everyone will want to deliver justice during the liberation,” said Ag Cherif.
Over the weekend, a dozen trucks escorted by heavily armed Burkina Faso police transported refugees to Goudebou who had previously taken refuge at another camp just over the border from Mali.
“We are relocating 580 refugees who were stationed at Ferrerio and bringing them here because it's safer,” said Guillaume Coulibaly, manager of the newly established Goudebou, about 300 kilometres from the volatile border.
Goudebou has already taken in around 300 new arrivals since the French offensive began on January 11. The UN estimates there are currently about 38 000 Malian refugees in impoverished Burkina Faso overall.
At least 147 000 Malians have sought shelter in neighbouring countries since the crisis began last year.
The UN said last week that if the fighting continues in the next few months, up to 400 000 more people could flee the strife-torn country, while hundreds of thousands of others could be internally displaced.
“We are preparing for a massive influx of refugees,” said Coulibaly. - Sapa-AFP