For Many Malians, Especially Those Uprooted by Conflict, Life Is Fragile
As conflicts go, it was relatively short. An ethnic Tuareg rebellion that began in northern Mali in January 2012 spread like wildfire when armed Islamist groups linked to Al Qaeda usurped control. A military coup in March of last year further weakened the government’s ability to respond. Fabled Timbuktu and commercial Gao (two major cities in the North) were overrun by rebels, and their citizens suffered such acts of terror and atrocities that many still cannot speak about them. Others cannot sleep without being awakened by horrific dreams of those days.
In January 2013, French forces came to the help of their former colony and, together with Malian and African troops, halted the rebels. The election of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK), the new president, followed in August. Taking office in September, IBK said that he wanted to unite all of Mali. Mali calls itself pays d’or and is the third-largest producer of gold in Africa; yet, one in five Malians live in extreme poverty. The recent crisis has exacerbated this and other old problems.
I just returned from a two-week Refugees International (RI) mission to Mali with a fellow board member, Elizabeth Galvin, RI Advocates Marcy Hersh and Michelle Brown, and RI Communications Director Dara McLeod. We had three goals for our mission: assess the humanitarian response to those who are presently internally displaced; evaluate the pace and possibility of people returning to the North and putting durable solutions in place; and understand current protection strategies, particularly for women and girls.
More than 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) have returned to their homes in the north, but hundreds of thousands remain displaced both internally and in neighboring countries. They are waiting for word that the north – an area the size of Texas – is safe again, that the schools are open, that there are services to go back to, and that there will be food and water. None of this is guaranteed right now. In fact, last week there were two bombings in Gao that caused some IDPs to return to the south again and others not to set forth.
The IDP situation is causing severe societal problems. There are strains on the host families, or familles d’accueil, which are supporting as many as 20 IDPs each. Displaced young women are turning to prostitution to help their families pay for rent and food, and they are being forced into early marriages to repay debts. Young IDP children are unable to register for school because of the payments required, or they are attending school without any school supplies.
On our mission, we talked with IDPs in three different living situations. The first IDPs we met were living in the Site des Chauffeurs, a camp for the displaced in Mopti, a city on the border with the north. There were 28 families remaining in this camp living under tarps and tents, with 14 latrines between them. Many of the families had fled the north with little more than their cooking utensils and the clothes on their backs. Several of the men had gone back north to figure out if it was safe enough to return.
Some of the children in the camp were going to school, but because schools in Mopti are already so crowded – with 100 to 200 children per classroom – half-days starting at 2 p.m. were the only way to accommodate additional students. We also visited an IDP family in Mopti living with a host family that had 20 people in one compound. The young children we met were going to school but they had no supplies – no paper, pens, or textbooks. There was no money for any of these items.
Bamako, Mali’s capital city, has also been a magnet for many from the north. There, we met with over 20 IDP families who were renting small huts at a hefty cost, with adults and children piled together in one room. Here, none of the children were attending school. We were told that these parents would have to pay money just to register their children – money they did not have.
One factor pulling people to return to the north is the reopening of schools there. The school year runs from October through June, and time and again IDP mothers told us that if it was safe and if the schools were open, they would like to go back. But because of the conflict, more than half of the schools in Gao and Timbuktu were damaged or destroyed. In these two cities, many of the schools were also taken over by armed groups and used as headquarters or recruitment centers. (Children were offered around $30 to become rebel soldiers.) Save the Children estimates that because of the conflict, 80,000 fewer children were being educated in Gao and Timbuktu in June 2013 than in the prior year. The organization also estimates that only 20 percent of the teachers in these two regions are trained.
Last Friday, an overcrowded boat carrying as many as 400 people capsized at night on the Niger River, as it made its way north between Mopti and Timbuktu. Many of the passengers were children, returning for the opening of the school year. Scores are still not accounted for. It is reasonable to assume that some of those on the boat were IDP families that had finally decided to return home.
There are so many challenges facing Mali right now, but two of the most important are providing security, and reopening and improving schools for those who dare to return to the north. The future of Mali will depend on whether these challenges are met.