In a darkly-lit house on a dusty, garbage-strewn street on the outskirts of Bamako, an elderly couple and a man in a white robe are seated on the floor. Amadou, the owner of the home, is approximately 70 years old and a retired gardener. He says that since rebels took over northern Mali last April, 16 members of his extended family have come to live with him, having been forced to flee their hometown of Timbuktu.
The most recent arrival is his cousin, Ahmeta, the man dressed in the white robe. He is – or was – the mayor of one of Timbuktu’s communes. His is a harrowing story. In late June, bandits carrying Kalashnikovs tried to break into his house and kill him and his family. While he was able to drive them off, he knew that as a public figure, he was a marked man. After the attack, he started sending his family members south to Bamako as resources allowed.
“I haven’t slept in my own house since April 1”, Ahmeta tells me and my Refugees International colleague. “I have moved from house to house never sleeping more than three hours a night.” Two days ago, he finally made the journey to Bamako himself, taking an alternate route in order to avoid rebel checkpoints along the main road south.
He describes the situation in Timbuktu, where Islamist groups who wish to impose sharia law now rule, as terrifying. “They cut off a woman’s ear in the market because she was not covered. If they see you talking to a woman who is not your wife, you get 50 lashes. It is unbelievable,” he says. “This is not according to our religion. To see an eight- or nine-year old boy with an AK47 – it is a catastrophe.”
To date, over 400,000 Malians like Ahmeta have fled the north, with about half seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. To make matters worse, at the time the conflict broke out, Mali and its neighbours were already struggling with a drought that had left millions of people across the region without enough food. The conflict in northern Mali has made it much harder for aid agencies to safely provide assistance, and rebel groups are reportedly diverting some of the aid as a ‘tax’.
“Those who remain behind really need help”, Ahmeta says. “Before the conflict broke out, we didn’t have good rain. We went to the fields and saw our animals dying. We were supposed to plant in June and July, but with the rebellion we couldn’t plant our fields. If it were not for aid agencies doing distributions, there wouldn’t be anyone left.”
While Ahmeta is clearly relieved to have escaped the north unscathed, worry and tension now line his face. His newly arrived family members have been unable to find steady work here in Bamako, and what limited resources they had are quickly running out. They are among the roughly 186,000 internally-displaced Malians who have fled south, mostly to urban areas where they have been taken in by relatives or ‘host families’. The fact that so many displaced Malians are being supported by extended families – as opposed to being packed into camps – is a positive development. But it also means that the displaced are scattered throughout large cities; hidden behind closed doors and tucked into spare rooms. This has made it challenging for aid agencies to identify which families are most vulnerable and what their needs really are.
Far greater attention and resources must be put towards identifying the growing needs of Mali’s internally displaced – especially the most vulnerable – and to scaling up assistance, which at present is insufficient and unevenly spread. Urgent needs include helping families find alternative types of shelter (such as rented housing), as well as access to paid work and healthcare. All of this will certainly reduce the burden on host families, but they will still need direct assistance if their critical support role is to be maintained.
While Ahmeta’s family members recently registered for assistance, so far they have not received more than a few bags of rice. Their wish, they say, is to return home. But with the rebels showing few signs of surrendering power and an international military force poised to intervene in the north, their prospects for a quick, safe return are slim. In fact, the situation is likely to grow far worse before it gets better, both in the north and the south.
Aid agencies and donors cannot wait for that to happen: they must mobilise more staff and resources immediately, and also make plans for how they will adapt if the situation deteriorates. It is true that the victims of this crisis may be hard to identify, but the time to find them is now, since their numbers and their needs will only increase as this crisis wears on.
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