By Sarah Fleming
Recreating a future
a bitter civil war, Mali is going through a transitional phase,
poised between actual fighting and a real peace. It is a delicate
moment in which the future hangs in the balance. It is also
a time when assistance programmes must be well targeted, in
tune with local culture and properly designed and maintained
so as to ensure lasting benefits.
The people of northern Mali live in one of the toughest areas
on earth: the Sahara and Sahelian region. They have always
faced the harshest of conditions, but developed mechanisms
to cope with their environment, making the best possible use
of scarce natural resources and living in a fine balance of
trade and mutual dependence. Tuareg and Arab nomadic groups
kept the salt trail — the backbone of the country’s
economy — going by trekking with their camel trains
hundreds of kilometres deep into the Sahara. There they collected
salt slabs which they brought south and exchanged for cereals
produced by the sedentary communities. The sedentary communities
(Sonrhaï and Bozo), concentrated around the main water
sources in the region, the Niger river, the network of swamps
near Gao and the lakes to the north-west of the Niger’s
loop through the north, cultivated the land and fished the
A rebellion broke out in the early 1990s, in which armed
groups from the north, feeling forgotten and abandoned by
the capital city Bamako, fought government troops. Communities
were torn apart during this bitter ethnic conflict. Some 300,000
people went into exile or fled deep into the desert. They
stayed hidden for fear of armed attacks, and the economy of
the region, already shaky, was severely disrupted.
“The people were completely traumatized by the events,”
says Attaher, who is responsible for the ICRC office in Gao.
“Throughout their history they have felt constantly
let down, believing in peace then having to face war again.”
Malian to Malian
When the ICRC first went back into the insecure areas after
the rebellion was over, looking for the scattered communities
in need of help, some people would disappear into the desert
at the first sign of a vehicle. They were afraid to approach
settled areas to seek out the aid they so desperately needed.
It was the Malian staff who were able to reach out to the
people hiding in the vast reaches of the desert. They used
their network of contacts in villages to fix meeting points
and introduce the delegates to the leaders of communities
and groups of ex-combatants. Together they were able to assess
what the most urgent needs were and develop programmes to
address those needs.
Even now, delegates never venture into the desert without
being accompanied by their Malian colleagues and local resource
persons from a mix of ethnic groups. The ethnic diversity
of the Malian staff also contributes in part to changing long-held
attitudes of ethnic hostility.
Bridging the gap
As part of a new integrated approach, the ICRC has identified
a number of areas where it can make a difference during this
period when uncertainty and insecurity still make it difficult
for humanitarian agencies to operate in certain regions. One
such programme is the provision of clean water for both nomadic
and sedentary populations.
“Where water flows freely, people live in affluence”,
goes a Tuareg proverb. Not only is water a vital resource
for people and their livestock, but competition for water
can cause inter-community disputes and a rise in tension.
During the conflict, many wells fell into disrepair or were
deliberately sabotaged leading to a serious water shortage
in the aftermath. The ICRC is helping to rehabilitate or dig
anew these important water sources by providing technical
expertise, materials and logistics, as well as information
on how to maintain the wells. Wells must be located in strategic
places to allow traditional population movements stipulated
by the season. In addition, people gather naturally around
a well and it becomes the place to exchange information and
rebuild contacts between groups.
Another casualty of the years of insecurity was the health
infrastructure. The Malian government has been introducing
a system based on cost recovery, which functions well in areas
where the population is concentrated in one place, but is
less viable in the north where the population is scattered
and people are unable to travel hundreds of kilometres to
a health centre and are too poor to pay the costs of care.
The ICRC has been acting as a mediator in the discussion
process, arranging meetings, passing on information and helping
to draw up the “carte sanitaire”, a map showing
the points where health care is needed, based on population
density and movements. As a result, advanced health posts
will be added to the facilities accepted at national level,
and supervised by doctors based in the districts’ central
medical centres. Mobile vaccination teams will be in operation.
A three-year programme to help regional and local medical
staff make the system work is under way, partly through a
project delegated to the Belgian Red Cross.
Save the Donkeys!
Donkeys are the working animal par excellence in
Mali (“the poor man’s horse and the children’s
bicycle”). They are used to carry goods and people,
a vital possession of small traders, raise water from wells
far faster than any human could, and form an essential link
in the salt trail. The donkey is the last resource of the
poor family: without it they lose everything. When a pneumonia
epidemic started to decimate the donkey population at the
end of 1996, the ICRC treated 2,453 donkeys and 325 horses.
The action saved many people from utter destitution. It also
treated thousands more animals for such diseases as rinderpest
and peripneumonie. At the same time it launched an information
campaign for veterinary authorities and stockbreeders, promoting
vaccination of livestock and techniques to manage resources
Sarah Fleming is an editor in the ICRC’s external resources
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