Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Evacuees

The last few days have mainly been a blur of preparation for Mali, but I'm now definitely off tomorrow, with a car picking me up at six.

One of the odd bits has been living with three people who all work in Mali and were evacuated as non-essential staff. They can't go back, but I can go. They've all be nice about it - one apathetic, one cracking jokes, and one berating the system. But you can tell it annoys them - if it's safe for me to go, why not for them to go back? The main reason isn't wholly reassuring - it might not be safe, but the funding coordinator is classed as essential staff. But the main reason is that the decision to send me can be taken by the regional centre, whereas Oxfam policy states that once someone's been evacuated, the head of the International Division, in Oxford, has to decide to let them go back. The Mali Country Director has written and asked, but she's not in the office this week, so they're in limbo.

It reminds me a bit of my Cote d'Ivoire days, many many years ago. I was living out there in 2002 with my UK diplomat parents when an attempted coup and civil war split the country in half and left those of us in the economic capital, Abidjan, living under instability and a curfew. Every night, after curfew, my parents and I would gather around the TV and watch the Ivoirian news, ending with Colonel Yao Yao giving a highly partisan account of the current state of 'les evenements', reminding us to 'restez calmes et serains' if there was trouble, and always ending in the phrase 'haut les coeurs' - both now family catchphrases.

From early on there was talk of changing the travel advice and evacuating non-essential embassy personnel, and eventually in mid-December we did. A few days later, and we were in the UK, my poor sister having changed her plans so she couldn't come out at all, while my poor mother and I desperately ran to the shops to buy jumpers. I merrily went off to Thailand on a Gap Yah, while my mother was left in limbo for several months, never able to make plans to stay (find a place to live, get a job, etc) because she was always being told she might be able to go home, and always being told 'no, not this time'. Meanwhile, the situation in Abidjan got steadily worse, so on top of the uncertainty over her own position, she had worry over my father's.

That's what Team Mali are putting up with at the moment - not just worry and displacement (apart from anything else, none of them seems that worried), but also uncertainty and frustration that they're not making as much progress as they'd like in their programmes because they're not there to run them. And living under uncertainty is tiring and it gets you down - which, incidentally, is why I was so unsure about coming here.

Of course the elephant in the blog post is that this is a cushy story. Being evacuated as a British diplomat's family or Oxfam expat staff member is easy. Most people who have to leave home due to insecurity can't even dream of what we had - they grab their children and what they can carry, and they run. They leave their livelihoods and property behind, they may lose other family members, and they may not know where they're going. Eventually they end up staying with friends and relatives, as we did, or in camps, and don't know how long they'll be there and when they can go home. I read an article in the Graun this week arguing for Somali refugees in Dadaab in Kenya to be able to work - right now they can't, even though many have been there twenty years. Twenty years, without being able to work, set down roots, and plan, and with relatives left in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. Which rather puts all our uncertainties into perspective. 

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