TIMBUKTU, Mali — A pile of stones and wood was all that remained of the house where Fadimata Walet Abdou Salam once lived when she and her young daughters returned after more than a year of sleeping in a tent as refugees in a foreign country.
Looters had stolen the windows and doors, and then heavy rains transformed the earthen walls into a heap of mud after she had to abandon her home in Timbuktu following unrest and violence.
Northern Mali fell under control of Tuareg separatists and then al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremists following a military coup in 2012. A French-led intervention last year scattered the extremists, but some remain active and there have been continued bursts of violence. Walet Abdou Salam and her family were among the Tuareg and Arab residents who fled reprisal attacks in January 2013 after jihadists were ousted from power.
For months, she and her two daughters — 11-year-old Aicha and 9-year-old Karima, lived in neighboring Burkina Faso, fearing for their lives after a series of attacks on ethnic Tuaregs like her.
"We came home to find our house in this state, and it was a huge shock for me," she says of the looted plot of earth next to a school where her two-bedroom home used to stand.
Nearly 54,000 refugees are still in Mauritania some 18 months after major fighting ended in northern Mali, along with about 51,000 in Niger and 33,000 in Burkina Faso, aid officials say.
While a peace accord still has not been reached between the Malian government and the Tuareg separatist rebels in the north, a growing number of Malian refugees like Walet Abdou Salam and her family are now returning home anyway.
Living conditions in the camps are poor, and the town of Timbuktu is considered somewhat safer now for the Arab and Tuareg residents who fled.
Many, though, are coming back to almost nothing: Shops destroyed, a tourism economy decimated by war and kidnappings of foreigners.
"The return of the refugees has been a spontaneous one without organization," said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, who met with Malian returnees in Timbuktu late last month.
The growing number of Malians coming back to the north also coincides with a looming food crisis in the region. Last year's harvest was not good, and already many did not have sufficient rice stocks, said Halle Ousmane, the deputy mayor of Timbuktu.
"Then the rains came late this year and there had been a drought," he explained. "Many sheep and cattle had died, and on top of that livestock prices fell. Herders were forced to sell cattle at 5,000 francs ($10) to buy grain for their families when normally they would sell at 100,000 francs ($200)."
Walet Abdou Salam says she's angry with the neighbors who stole her things but also upset with local authorities for doing nothing to protect the homes of those who fled. And she also wishes aid groups would do more to help those returning like her.
"Today my only wish is to rebuild my home and send my daughters to school," she said.
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