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Northern Mali
Recreating a future

By Sarah Fleming
Following 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 waters.

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 more effectively.

Sarah Fleming
Sarah Fleming is an editor in the ICRC’s external resources department.

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