NRC deeply concerned with the crisis in Northern Mali
Fighting between the Malian army and rebel groups in northern Mali has displaced tens of thousands of civilians. The majority has sought refuge in the extremely poor neighbouring states. NRC’s Rapid Response Team reports from its assessment of the situation in Burkina Faso.
75 year-old Icla Agsedi has witnessed terrifying events over the past months. In the end he was forced to flee his home in northern Mali.
“When the government army and the rebels clashed, heavy fighting broke out in our village. I lost many friends and family members. Some were hit by bombs and their bodies were burned to the extent that we could not recognize them”, the old nomad recounts.
Too sick to walk, Icla spent his last money securing transportation by car from the Gao area to Ferrerio refugee camp in northern Burkina Faso. He crossed the border three days ago. Icla hopes to be reunited with his family in a few days. Until then, he is alone in his miniscule shelter made from pieces of cloth and cardboard.
Increasing number of displaced
Since the end of January 2012, the security situation in northern Mali has steadily deteriorated as a result of an armed conflict between government forces and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), backed by Islamist groups. As always in armed conflict, the civilians are hit the hardest.
The UN estimates that some 284,000 people have fled northern Mali by May 2012. Of these, 177,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring countries – Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso. While these countries have shown generosity by receiving thousands of refugees, they lack resources to provide them with the necessary basic aid. The number of internally displaced in northern Mali is extremely difficult to verify, but according to the UN, the number is close to 107,000.
Crossing the desert on foot
Many of the refugees in the refugee camps in northern Burkina Faso are Tuaregs – an iconic and very distinct ethnic group. With their music, nomadic lifestyle and the men’s colourful headscarves, often leaving only a small gap around the eyes, the Tuaregs encompass all the romantic folklore surrounding the Sahara. Nonetheless, the Malian Tuaregs and other ethnic groups in the north of the country now face a new reality. At a gathering under a big tree in the Ferrerio refugee camp, NRC’s Rapid Response Team listened to the problems, worries and needs of the newly displaced men and women.
“Many of us left Mali and crossed the desert on foot with only what we could carry in our hands,” says Mohammad, a distinguished Tuareg elder. “Our must urgent needs are water, shelter, food, health, sanitation and education. We received some food from the UN, but in the second round only half of us got food. Also, we have new arrivals every day, but many of us here have not been registered.”
Scales agrees there are many gaps to be filled in the humanitarian response to the Mali crisis.
“The humanitarian community was not prepared for a refugee crisis of these proportions in Mali and neighbouring countries. I am, however, encouraged to see that the Burkinabe refugee authorities, together with UN and NGOs, are gearing up to respond to the crisis. It is also worth underscoring that the local population here in Burkina Faso have been very welcoming, sharing whatever little they could with the Malian refugees. Let us make sure this does not end up as a forgotten, underfunded crisis.”
No humanitarian access to the internally displaced
Of an even greater concern is the situation for the internally displaced in northern Mali, where fighting on the ground has effectively cut off the area from humanitarian assistance.
“The refugees we met have told deeply worrying stories about villages emptying ahead of advancing armed forces and groups,” says Shaun Scales, Senior Emergency Coordinator for the Rapid Response Team. “The displacement numbers are difficult to verify since we have no access to northern Mali at this point; but there is no doubt that thousands of civilians are displaced and in dire need of assistance and protection.”
Drought exacerbates the displacement crisis
At the same time as conflict is causing people to flee, the drought in the Sahel region – a cross-continental belt south of Sahara consisting of semi-arid deserts and grasslands – is exacerbating the crisis in Mali, killing thousands of livestock and causing a severe food crisis in the whole Sahel region. Some 16 million people are currently affected.
Glimmers of hope
In the midst of the hardship in the makeshift settlements, there are also glimmers of hope and new life. Inside a traditional Tuareg nomad tent in the Damba refugee camp, a pair of small eyes is slowly adjusting to the harsh desert light. The one-week old Fatti was born without any outside assistance, but all went well, the proud father, 40-year-old Elmahdi, assures the visiting NRC team. “My wife and my new daughter are both very exhausted, but I think they will be ok,” he concludes.
Others find themselves in more urgent need of assistance.
Hiding from the merciless rays of the midday sun under his primitive roofing, Icla Agsedi, the old nomad, is complaining about headache and chest pains following the journey from his home village near Gao in Mali. Having spent only three days in Ferrerio, he has not yet been informed about the need to register with the Malian refugee authorities. Being too exhausted to move, he can do nothing, much else than hoping for assistance to arrive at some point.
“Please, take my picture and tell the world what you see. I want as many people as possible to know about our situation,” says Icla as he struggles to sit up right for a photograph.