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Demba Koumbély and her nephew in Abidjan  
Demba Koumbély and her nephew in Abidjan

Ivory Coast: a familiar refuge for some Malians, but not home

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Like many of their compatriots, Demba Koumbély and Amadou Sako fled Mali to escape the corporal punishment-inflicting jihadists who were advancing towards the south. And like many other Malians, they went to Ivory Coast. The neighbouring country has proven a refuge but not necessarily a place they're ready to call home.

Demba Koumbély is a 27-year-old businesswoman who could once be found selling bazin, the dyed cotton fabric characteristic of fashion from her native Mali. For some time, her business operations ran between Bamako and Abidjan, but the political crisis in Mali brought her work to a halt.

“The conflict took caught me off guard,” she says, recalling her experience one day at a Bamako market. “Shots fired everywhere; I was really terrified and panicking. I lived in hiding for two weeks in Bamako before leaving the city.”

Koumbély is now living with relatives in Abidjan.

Some 43 kilometres away in the Ivorian city of Bassam, Amadou Sako is also staying with family. The computer scientist from the Malian city of Ségou used to work for a telecommunications company and is hopeful he will soon be able to return home to his job.

Meanwhile, he and Demba are monitoring developments in their native land.

Monitoring from afar
Sako mostly watches France 24 and Radio France International (RFI), though also keeps up to speed online. “I spend my days on the internet searching for news. I also chat on Facebook with friends from Bamako,” he says.

Koumbély admits spending most of the day in front of the TV. “I watch a lot of news on TV about the situation in Mali, mostly on France 24 [the French international news channel] and ORTM [Mali’s national television]. I rarely listen to the radio,” she says.

Even days after French and African troops recaptured territories previously under Islamist control, Koumbély worries about Malians living in those cities. She telephones – “an average of once every two days”, she estimates – to enquire about her family members who stayed behind.

“I have news from my parents who remained in Bamako, but I fear for those in the north. I have a friend living in Gao, for example, and I have no news of her whereabouts. Last time I spoke to her on the phone, she told me that women were not allowed to go out [without the Islamic veil],” she says.

Returning home
Koumbély does not hide her desire to return to Bamako and resume her business once things are back to normal. She also praises the recent military intervention. “Without France’s support, the Malian army alone could not recapture northern Mali, even with their impressive logistics,” she says.

Sako agrees. “I am reassured by the involvement of the French Army because, without them, I doubt we would be able to get rid of those bandits,” he says.

He is optimistic that Mali will one day regain its territorial integrity. But Sako still doubts the ability of the Malian authorities to host fair and peaceful elections, allowing the people to choose, as he puts it, “someone capable of tackling Mali’s future challenges”.