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Hidden faces of the war in Mali

Plan International - Thu, 14 Feb 2013 14:53 GMT
Author: Dr Unni Krishnan
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Conflict has reconfigured lives of thousands of people in Mali. Children and women are perhaps the worst hit. The conflict in Mali has displaced close to a quarter million people from the north of the country to the south and central areas. The humanitarian crisis is fast spreading beyond Mali’s borders  into in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania where 144,439 refugees have arrived since the beginning of the crisis in March 2012.

Displaced, uprooted and traumatised and under-reported, they are the human face, perhaps the hidden face of this conflict.

There is an urgent need to scale up humanitarian assistance. To rebuild Mali, it is equally important to make investments that will strike at the roots of poverty. It will be a marathon race.

From the outside, Mali presents a different picture. Mostly, armed insurgents and the French and Malian-led military mission have dominated news. The plight of ordinary people affected by the conflict remains unseen and untold.  There are no relief camps as generous families in the south and central parts of Mali has been accepting displaced families from the north with open arms. Absence of camp means, no ‘drama’ and thus no TV coverage.

Tale of a family

“They cry in their sleep and complain about nightmares” said Fatima, referring to her little nephews and nieces.

Affected and displaced by the conflict, people like Fatima are having a tough time coping with their changed circumstances, particularly looking after children who have been deeply unsettled. Fatima recalls vividly the dreadful day when this all started "it was like hell being let loose".

In June 2012, she was walking through the streets of Timbuktu, a town on the southern edge of the Sahara desert in northern Mali, an intellectual and spiritual capital in Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. The town has been under the control of armed insurgents since April 2012.

She stopped to say hello to a male friend who was walking in her direction. She was spotted and stopped by the armed insurgents. They accused her of talking to a “stranger”. They pulled her by her hair and then started beating her. She tried to reason and pleaded in vain.The beating continued and then they put a gun on her head.

“I was terrified”, she recalled with fear in her eyes.

She was then kept as a ‘hostage’ for several hours. She is not sure when she fell unconscious. When she woke up, they released her and she went home.She and her six sisters fled Timbuktu the same night -- along with 13 children in the family. Life for her family has since changed forever.

“When two big elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers” goes the African proverb.

Conflict in Mali has left thousands of people like Fatima displaced, uprooted and traumatised. She and the rest of the family have been living in Segou in a crowded two bedroom rented house since their arrival in June. Children’s education has been hampered and they have limited food to eat. Hearing about and witnessing violence has left scars in their mind. For many, bad memories stir up in their nightmares.

Boys in the Wallet family, who are internally displaced in southern Mali, make metal craft after work to supplement the family income

Three disasters - a ‘force multiplier’

There are three disasters simultaneously unfolding in Mali.

First, only last year Mali, in fact the whole of Sahel region in Africa, was battling a severe food crisis - considered the worst in recent history. In Mali alone 1.2 million people were rendered food insecure and malnourished. Children and women were hit hardest.

Second, around the same time, the armed conflict in the north and reported human rights violations resulted in the displacement of thousands of people. The military invention and subsequent fighting this year have amplified the crisis and displaced additional thousands. Limited security and access are severely hampering humanitarian relief operations to reach the most vulnerable such as children and women. If the situation is not resolved it could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe.

Third, currently it is the sowing season for crops in the region. Fighting and displacement have brought agricultural activities to a complete halt. This seriously increases the threat of yet another food crisis this year.

Immediate needs

Situation in Mali calls for stepping up life-saving humanitarian assistance such as food, water and medical help with a sense of urgency. Thanks to host families in Ségou who accepted the displaced people from the north like Fatima with open arms, there are no camps in Mali. However, the pressure on such host families is huge for food, water and basic facilities. Stress is building up. Some families I met during the mission to support Plan International’s humanitarian work requested money to rent a little more comfortable place to stay.

Several children, such as those I met, are traumatised from the conflict and are in need of emotional care and support. Many children have been separated from their families and friends and finding it difficult to adjust to their new environment.

In a conflict situation such as in Mali, child protection should be a priority. History of conflicts shows that addressing physical and emotional needs of those affected must go hand in hand. An early intervention can help to lift the shadow of conflict looming over their minds.


Education has been one of the first casualties of the ongoing conflict in Mali. A factsheet prepared by the UN’s education cluster before the hostilities began said that “amongst the 300,000 students in the north only 20 percent had been displaced to the south or were refugees in the neighbouring countries. However, 80 per cent of those who remained in the north had no access to education leaving them at risk of recruitment into armed groups.”

Education is key to restoring normalcy in children’s lives during conflicts and to ensure a better future. It is an essential part of rebuilding a nation. However, in Mali education shouldn’t be equated with just provision of textbooks and classrooms. A survey carried out by the UN last year found that in 50 per cent of the surveyed villages in the north, there is a trend of school drop-out mainly due to food insecurity. Schools, in addition to a place for education, should also serve as a place that can offer food security. A school-based nutrition programme is necessary.

In Ségou, Plan International’s team has been running ‘catch-up’ classes and recreational centres for children thus helping them to cover their missed lessons but more importantly as a way to help them cope with their circumstances. Speaking to children you learn that how uncertainty about the future can have a debilitating impact on their minds. They know when the conflict started but have no idea when it will all end and how much more damage it will cause.

Money matters

Rebuilding Mali is not going to be an easy task. It is going to be a long drawn process. It is not just about the life-saving relief assistance but also about the larger picture. UNDP's human development index in 2011 ranked Mali below Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. It is necessary to make investments that will strike at the roots of poverty.

Multiple disasters, some of the lowest development indicators and now the armed conflict – all have compounded the sufferings of Malian people.  Mali needs all the attention and support. However, donors have been less forthcoming.

The UN’s consolidated appeal for US$370 million for relief assistance has been met with a lukewarm response. As of the last week of January less than one per cent had been committed by donors. Opposed to this, a donors’ conference in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia held on January 29, led to commitment of nearly half a billion dollars for military action.

This funding gap for humanitarian assistance is extremely worrying and will be a major block in reaching out to the most vulnerable children and others who have been affected by the conflict. With possibility of a replay of the food crisis, donors need to step up immediately to deal with this.

What needs to be done?

There is an urgent need to scale up humanitarian assistance in Mali. The security and access needs to be improved as a top priority. Life-saving, rebuilding and reconciliation initiatives must go hand in hand. Rebuilding should address the immediate impact of the conflict as well as its dynamics and underlying causes - that is the only way to break the cycle of violence. So much to be done, but children could be the good place to start.

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