refugees fight flames in the Sahara

Ahmedou Ould Boukhary knows he can get the call at any time, day or night, from the local authorities in Bassikounou, a town in south-east Mauritania. Someone has discovered a fire in one of the villages located on the edge of the Sahara. How soon can he and his men be there?

Boukhary leads the Brigade Anti-Feu – Anti-Fire Brigade – a volunteer force of around 500 Malian refugees living in the M’bera camp, towards the border with Mali, 18 km from the city. When the call comes, teams of between 50 and 70 men pack into the back of trucks and zoom out of the camp to deal with the fire. Sometimes they travel up to 20 miles to put out fires.

With little more than axes and tree branches, the brigade has helped put out 36 fires in and around the camp since October, during the last dry season, which lasts until June. The fires usually come after the rain, when scrubland, full of green plant life, slowly becomes a tinderbox.

  • Ahmedou Ould Boukhary, a founder of the Anti-Fire Brigade, at a three-day kindergarten in the camp. The brigade plants trees to replace those used for construction and cooking

During a recent practice run, the trucks crash into the desert. When they stop, the men jump out and start chopping at a small tree, passing the tough branches around to use as makeshift brooms. They form a line and start sweeping the ground just like they would if they were putting out a real fire. Dust and sand billow into the hot air, which is filled with the sound of excited shouts. The equipment may be modest, but branches used well are enough to put out many brush fires.

“It’s a bit tiring, it’s a bit risky,” says Mine Hamada, one of the brigade leaders. “We have the courage not to be afraid. We are brave – we go at midnight, we go at 1am, we go at any hour. We go into the bush. There are snakes, that’s all – but we attack the forest fires .”

An influx of thousands of refugees escaping an increase in violence and increasing insecurity in Mali since March has reduced the number of calls this year. The hungry livestock they brought with them ate many of the bushes and trees that would have been a fire hazard. Between October 2020 and June 2021, the teams put out 58 fires.

  • Clockwise from top left: a man cuts long bushy branches from a bush – very effective in fighting back low-level fires; brigade members practice firefighting techniques. A younger boy also practices: the brigade has acquired a heroic cachet, and teenagers can join at 6 p.m.; men practice and listen to a debriefing from Boukhary.

Founded in 2013 as an initiative between the Mauritanian NGO SOS Desert, local authorities and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the brigade is among a number of volunteer groups that have emerged in M’bera since the camp was established 10 years ago. The camp is home to around 80,000 Malians.

In addition to putting out fires, the refugee fire service tries to reduce the risk of fire by cutting down trees and bushes to create firebreaks between patches of vegetation. The brigades also plant trees to replace those cut down to make homes in the camp and for cooking. This effort contributes to the Great Green Wall – a massive reforestation project that aims to build a 4,350-mile barrier to combat environmental degradation in the Sahel.

Miraculously, the brigade has only suffered one injury in the past nine years, says Hamada. Amid strong winds, a man tripped and fell into a fire he was fighting. His firefighters were able to pull him to safety before he could be seriously injured.

Related: “Children were chased by armed men”: Malians seek safety in Mauritania

The volunteers say they take on the dangerous work, which often has them out in the field for hours at a time, because they want to protect the area they live in. But they also do it out of gratitude – to repay their Mauritanian hosts for the years they have spent as refugees.

“We have to help read adopters,” says Boukhary, referring to the local Mauritanians who, by accepting the Malians into their country, he suggests have “adopted” them. “We are intervening to help them. Because we are refugees on their territory. Nobody asked us “Do this, do that” – that’s our initiative.”

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