Assafa’s Story, Burkina Faso

Photo by UNHCR/H. Caux/2012.

Photo by UNHCR/H. Caux/2012.

It was on July 4, in 2012. I was in Burkina Faso to report on the Malian refugees for UNHCR. I went with my colleagues to Damba camp, at the border with Mali. Some 4,000 refugees were staying there at that time, they had fled a violent conflict opposing the government and a Tuareg rebel movement in the north of the country earlier in the year. I was walking through the camp to meet with refugees, the weather was threatening but nothing to worry about, just some big grey clouds in the horizon. In the space of 5 minutes, the atmosphere completely changed. The sky became brown, the wind was blowing so strongly, and we ended up in the middle of a major sand storm. It was apocalyptic. Families were running around to shelter in their wooden huts, quickly picking up kitchen pots and clothes they had left outside, mothers and fathers were looking for their children. My colleagues rushed to the car to wait for the storm to pass away. I tried to stay outside, I wanted to document the hostile conditions refugees have to face sometimes. At first it was horrible, the sand was going in my eyes, my ears, my mouth, I was trying to protect my camera equipment. I thought what about the refugees who are exposed regularly too such ordeal…

I was about to give up taking photographs in this excruciating environment and to ask for hospitality in a refugee’s hut, when I saw this little girl standing still in front of me, as the sand storm was raging. I was touched by her vulnerability and at the same by the peacefulness and strength she was conveying in the middle of such turmoil. She did not seem worried at all, and unaffected by the sandy wind blowing around her. It was kind of moment of grace, I felt as if time was suspended. I was probably there only some minutes but it felt a very long and a very unique moment. The sand storm slightly calmed down and she vanished as quickly as she had appeared it front of me.

I later learnt that her name was Assafa and that she was 6 years old. I had first thought she was a boy when I saw him/her! Her father had died 4 years before of illness, and she was in the camp with her mother, and her older sister and younger brother. They had left their village in the Gossi region of northern Mali as soon as the conflict started, and walked 3 days before reaching safety in Burkina Faso. “A Tuareg settlement close to our home was attacked by the Army, and we were afraid that the conflict would soon reach our village, so we left” explains Assafa’s mother Aichatou. “Dozens of persons were killed during the attack, only a few survived”. The family paid a driver 400,000 CFA ($800) to take them over the border. They sold some of their goats to be able to raise that huge amount of money. I can only imagine the panic in Assafa’s village when they heard about the nearby attack…. I admire her mother’s survival instinct to protect the most precious things in her life, her children, and take them right away to a safer place.

Assafa was relocated with her family and all the refugees of Damba camp to another nearby camp, in Mentao. She continues to go to school. “I want to become a teacher” she says. “And I want to go back to my home in Mali”.


by Helene Caux, UNHCR Senior Regional Public Information Officer and Photographer.

1 family torn apart by war is too many

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