On 13 August, 37 people, including 13 children, were killed by armed men in the region of Tillabéri in Niger, near the border with Mali. It was the latest illustration of the ceaseless violence that has been causing immense suffering for the civilian population.
Patrick Youssef, the International Committee of the Red Cross's regional director for Africa, described the humanitarian situation in an opinion piece published by Jeune Afrique on 21 August 2021.
Adja was just 13 years old when armed men stormed into her village and began firing indiscriminately. When nobody moved anymore, they left. Adja was seriously wounded but "lucky". She had survived by playing dead.
She was rushed to the emergency room at Mopti Hospital in Mali, where my colleagues operated on her. After three months convalescing, Adja was well enough to leave the hospital and stay with a family in her village who had also survived the attack. But she was left disabled and, because she could no longer walk long distances to go to school, without an education.
Today Adja is 15 years old. She can no longer draw water from the well, carry a bucket on her head or grind cereals to make meals. Her life has come to a standstill.
Unfortunately, Adja's story is not unique. In the Sahel, against a backdrop of political impasses, economic crises and climate shocks, local people face a steady stream of indiscriminate attacks and intense military operations.
All this tends to relight the flames of conflict and crime, stoke communal tensions and exacerbate accelerate the breakdown in public services.
In recent months, the situation has grown particularly dramatic in the area of Liptako Gourma, which straddles the borders of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. The level of violence has gone up another notch, increasing the suffering of an already vulnerable civilian population.
Hundreds of men, women and children have been killed or injured in these three countries since the beginning of the year. More and more improvised explosive devices are blowing cars and ambulances off the roads. In Mali alone, our staff recorded 40 incidents in 2020, impacting 224 civilians, of whom 163 were injured and 61 killed.
Healthcare facilities are not safe from the violence either. No longer are hospitals places of sanctuary: doctors and nurses have been attacked and ambulances and medicines stolen – depriving thousands of people of life-saving access to healthcare.
Behind each of these cold statistics is a life that has been turned upside down.
In their desperation to curb the violence, governments have turned increasingly to their armies, sometimes recruiting auxiliary fighters from among the civilian population. At the same time, local people have formed self-defence militias. All this comes at a price.
Members of self-defence militias lose the protection afforded to civilians when they take part in combat, and developing such militias could be counter-productive: more weapons in more people's hands may exacerbate tensions between communities yet further. For civilians in the region, the risk of violence along ethnic lines is real.
Such dialogue with all parties is imperative if we are to bring even the minimum amount of vital humanitarian aid needed: we estimate that more than 1.5 million people are currently living in areas at high risk of being cut off from all access to humanitarian aid and basic services.
This is on top of the more than two million people who have been displaced by armed conflict and violence. In the absence of basic social services, many have no other choice but to move to urban areas in the hope of finding some safety and opportunities to survive. But as the urban population rises, access to natural resources and public services – including hospitals, schools, drinking water and arable land – becomes increasingly difficult in an environment made already fragile by climate change.
So, what hope is there for Adja and the millions of people like her in the Sahel?
An answer that is based only on security will not be enough. The hardest task is, in fact, to protect the civilian population while seeking political consensus, one that can facilitate economic and social development – in other words, investing in people.