Mauritania – the Refugees Putting Out Fires – and Prejudice

As Mauritania faces its yearly bushfire season, a group made up of refugees teams up with the local community to put out the flames and save pastures for livestock. But the region continues to grow more volatile.

In eastern Mauritania, November sees dry winds blow over the flat landscapes of the country. Grass from the past rainy season has turned yellow and white.

Seated on the back of a white pick-up truck, surrounded by young men in yellow vests, Mahfouz Ould Messaoud seems undisturbed by the sand blowing up as the vehicle makes its way along desert roads. He is used to what he is seeing, yet it doesn’t leave him unmoved.

“It hurts us when we see this burnt land. It’s like our hearts that are burning. It’s as if our house had burned down”, he says as he points to a black patch of land; this is where he helped put out a bushfire just a few weeks ago.

That is just one of many reminders for Messaoud that bushfire season has begun.

Fighting fire with fire

Messaoud speaks as someone who knows what it feels like to have your “house burned down” — his home in Mali continues to witness atrocities of the worst kinds:

“There are massacres, killings of anyone, anywhere, in any way possible. In the cities, in the bush, on the road, in the villages, old people, women, and this makes us feel very uneasy,” he tells DW. Earlier in the year, he lost his nephew in Mali.

Mauritania has now become his second home, his refuge. “We have to do something for them too,” he says. This is why he decided to become part of a volunteer fire brigade in eastern Mauritania, which is made up of Malian refugees.

After being forced to flee his country in 2012 following the start of the conflict between the Malian army, separatist rebels and jihadist insurgents, he chooses to fight forces of destruction where he can.

Messaoud says organizations like the anti-fire brigade can help refugees, especially young people, forget what they’ve experienced back home, even if they are trading one kind of trauma for another.

A refugee initiative

The firefighting team was first established by a handful of refugees, before gaining support and recognition by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) in 2018.

Now, there are 500 people contributing to extinguishing fires in the region – over 135 so far this year. And there’s a lot at stake:

“Bushfires constitute one of the main causes of degradation and destruction of natural resources in Mauritania,” the local UNHCR bureau in Bassikounou says.

The UN organization runs the M’bera refugee camp, which now hosts around 100,000 Malians.

Over one million hectares lost

The volatility of the region of Hodh El Chargui, located just a few dozen kilometers from the border with Mali, is visible at first glance: humans and animals share whatever little water is available, as the blazing heat of the sun dries up whatever little vegetation there is.

Only a few scattered evergreen bushes serve as orientation marks; here, people essentially live from their livestock.

To survive, animals need water — but also food, which they have to look for in the vegetation.

According to the Mauritanian Environment Ministry, between 50,000 and 200,000 hectares of land suffer fires each year – totalling over 1.2 million hectares between 2010 and 2020.

“The animals eat this grass, and if it burns, they have nothing to eat and will die,” Messaoud explains.

The threat of desertification

Mauritania is also one of the countries most vulnerable to the effects of the climate crisis. About 90% of its territory is covered by the Sahara Desert.

Desertification, caused by long periods of drought and reduced rainfall, is a challenge for nomadic and pastoralist communities in the country.

According to the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ), temperatures in Mauritania are expected to rise between 2 and 4.5 degrees centigrade by 2080.

Protecting the little remaining pastures from wildfires is therefore becoming more crucial than ever. The refugee firefighters know this.

When a fire is detected, they can be called up at any time of the day or night, and rush to the task.

To put out the flames, there are no hosepipes or fire engines; the endemic water scarcity represents an obstacle to traditional approaches.

Instead, the fire brigade opts for another tool: there’s an ever-green bush, which animals don’t eat. The tough branches, put together, can be whipped onto the ground, suffocating the flames and thus clearing the ground to create a fire-break.

Working this way is difficult, sometimes even dangerous. Fire fighters must move swiftly, and in close coordination with each other.

Each has to make sure that the person in front is safe; especially at nighttime, it’s easy to be left behind.

Bonding over tragedy

The daunting task of fighting fires is often shared between the refugees and the local community, serving as an unusual way to get to know each other.

For Messaoud, putting out fires is also a way to show his appreciation: “Even if we have nothing, we give our sweat, and this is money, too, in a way. That’s why we created this organization.”

The UNHCR sees the initiative as a way to foster peace and mutual understanding between refugees and the locals. For centuries, communities on both sides of the border have been sharing cultures, languages, and similar ways of life.

But despite a long-lasting tradition of mutual hospitality, the UNHCR warns that refugees also exert “an acute pressure on limited services and rare natural resources in a region already prone to climate shocks, and with acute humanitarian needs in terms of water, food, healthcare, shelter and basic necessities.”

Uncertain future

The war in Mali has also impacted Mauritanians: “People from this area have a habit of taking their animals to Mali, which unfortunately faces consistently unstable security conditions,” explains Fatimetou Mahvoudh Khatri, Mauritania’s Commissioner for Food Security.

Over the past few months, new violence in northern and central Mali has continued to push civilians over the border. The failure of the Algiers Peace Agreement and the withdrawal of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) have led to a spike in fighting between the army, backed by Russian Wagner mercenaries, and separatist rebels. At the same time, jihadist groups have multiplied their attacks in the region.

“It’s a situation very prone to revenge actions,” says Bakary Sambe, regional director at the Timbuktu Institute in Dakar.

Just this year, the UNHCR registered 10,000 new arrivals at the M’bera refugee camp. Many more have found shelter in villages near the border and are surviving under dire conditions.

A local village chief, who requested anonymity for his protection, says his village now hosts about 50 Malian families. “And more are still arriving,” he adds.

“We ask for help, help, help. Because we, too, are suffering.”

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