It’s been a testing few months for Mali: a food crisis, a major conflict and a military coup have left the country in turmoil. That armed and trained Tuareg rebels returning from Libya were the likely catalyst for the recent upsurge in violence is well documented, but there has been far less attention paid to the impact on the Tuareg people themselves. While Tuareg rebels ransacked army garrisons in the north, easily turning over the unprepared and ill-equipped Malian military, it was the ordinary Tuaregs, particularly the women, in the towns and cities who were the victims of revenge attacks.

Pyschiatrist Chadal Walet Albakaye was injured when the wives and sisters of Malian soldiers attacked her in the capital, Bamako. ‘They were my neighbours, but their rage was simply tremendous,’ she says. ‘They left me with two broken toes, one cracked tooth and many bruises. But I’m the lucky one. I’m safe now while so many are dead, wounded or lost on a piece of desert dying of hunger and thirst.’

Chadal was able to escape from Mali and find refuge in Europe. She is just one of the estimated 160,000 Malians – mostly women and children, from both sides of the conflict – who have either been internally displaced or forced to leave their country since the conflict flared up again in January. Many have fled to neighbouring Burkina Faso, Algeria, Mauritania and Niger. But with much of the region facing severe food shortages and drought, the situation for these refugees is dire.

‘It’s quite desperate,’ says Mark, an aid worker in Bamako. ‘Before this crisis blew up there were already around 10 million people in need of assistance across the Sahel [the semiarid belt that stretches across North Africa from Senegal to Sudan]. Now it’s close to disaster point; that’s the gravity of things right now.’

There are around three million Tuaregs spread across vast swathes of the Sahara and the Sahel, from Libya to southern Algeria, northern Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso. They are nomads and pastoralists by tradition, but now many are stuck in refugee camps near the borders facing a daily scramble to stay alive.

‘At the border they have nothing,’ says Fadimata, from a refugee camp near Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. ‘There are Tuareg doctors there but they have no medicines; people are in complete misery.’

For many this situation is only too familiar. There have been regular armed Tuareg insurrections for decades due to what the rebels see as their unequal treatment within Malian society and the underdevelopment of their desert homelands.

‘We’ve been living this rebellion for 50 years now and every 5 or 10 years we are forced to leave Mali,’ says refugee Moussa Ag Elmoctar. ‘Everyone knows we are nomads. We used to have freedom in the desert with our animals. We don’t need anything from the government, we just need peace.’