As the nature of conflict in northern Mali has changed, the ICRC has beefed up operations and adapted to new realities. Persistence will be essential to meet the region’s critical humanitarian needs.
More than six months after French and Malian forces gained control of key towns and cities in northern Mali, a very fragile sense of stability has returned to many parts of this war- and drought-ravaged country.
Some 7,000 soldiers from a regional African forcehave joined Malian soldiers in the task of fighting against armed opposition groups while a United Nations (UN ) peacekeeping mission was deployed in July.
Still, life here is still far from normal. “Small numbers of the displaced people are starting to return home, without means — and sometimes to homes that have been pillaged,” says Attaher Maïga, head of the ICRC sub-delegation in Gao in northern Mali. “Life is returning little by little; certain schools and markets are open. But the banks and many administrative services still don’t function.”
What little economic activity exists here is moving “as if in slow motion”, Maïga adds. “People’s buying power is very weak. Naturally, this limits their access to basic services so humanitarian aid remains the principal source of sustenance.”
Meanwhile, the situation remains volatile as the nature of the conflict evolves. Violent skirmishes and air strikes are continuing while new threats are also emerging. “There is a new trend of suicide attacks happening in urban areas, as well as the use of roadside explosive devices,” says Yasmine Praz Dessimoz, ICRC’s head of operations for North and West Africa. “What’s taking shape is an asymmetric conflict with guerrilla-style hit-and-run tactics.”
This makes life for the people still living in northern Mali extremely rough. In addition to lack of income, food and sanitation, basic health care is still limited. “Access to health care is difficult because many health centres are non-functional,” says Maïga. “But it’s also because of the absence of qualified suppliers and the distances required to reach the health facilities. All this is happening in a context of precarious security that makes travel perilous.”
Prepare and adapt
To help people in desperate need, the ICRC has had to adapt as the conflict has evolved. “Paradoxically, it’s more difficult than it was in 2012, when the northern cities were controlled by the armed groups,” adds Praz Dessimoz. “Back then, they were visible and present and therefore easier to network with. Now that they are scattered, it is much harder to reach out to them.”
Considerable time and effort has been spent maintaining connections with all the armed actors, she says. Meanwhile, adds Maïga, the armed groups “have followed our movements on the ground” so humanitarian services have not been blocked. “The commitments made by the armed groups towards the ICRC are still in place,” he says. (To see the full interview with Attaher Maïga, visit www.redcross.int.)
The explosive remnants of war, along with mines laid along roads, also pose a hidden and persistent threat, while crime and organized violence create other security concerns. In addition, most basic services in many northern towns and cities have been destroyed.
“Public services — water, electricity and health care — ground to a halt when most of the staff qualified to run them left,” says Abdoule-Karim Diomande, who coordinates water and habitat activities for the ICRC in the region.
People in the north also lacked another essential
item: petrol. “No electricity to power pumping stations means no water,” Diomande adds. “So the ICRC decided to provide fuel to keep the infrastructure running.”
The fuel was also used to supply electricity to three key cities, allowing for clean drinking water and for small businesses to operate, at least for a few hours a day. The petrol also helped keep key health facilities up and running. In addition to providing medical supplies and other support for the regional hospital in Gao, the ICRC provided fuel and generators so that the hospital could function independently from the outside power grid.
Beefing up operations
To cope with the immense needs and to assist those who have fled the fighting, the ICRC has doubled the amount it plans to spend for the Mali operation in 2013. In April 2013, the organization launched an appeal and a budget extension of nearly US $ 43 million in addition to approximately US $ 40.3 million already budgeted for the year, making the Mali operation one of the three largest ICRC operations worldwide.
It’s made a significant difference already, says Maïga. “An operation of this scale requires significant resources, including human resources and logistics,” he explains. “But beyond direct assistance to victims, [the budget extension] has also allowed us to indirectly touch other layers of society and other sectors. For example, it has allowed us to pump a little oxygen into the local economy through diverse purchases made locally and via contracts with local suppliers.”
Throughout the operation, the Mali Red Cross has also played a critical role. With branches and volunteers in all the affected areas, the National Society’s volunteers have been working to distribute food and household items, restocking medicine supplies, warning people about mines and explosive devices, improving water and sanitation and hygiene awareness, supporting income-generating activities and helping to reconnect families split up by the fighting.
For the ICRC, the volunteer network has been a critical asset. “The value of the support of the Mali Red Cross volunteers to ICRC actions is inestimable,” says Maïga, adding that “very often, members of the National Society are important people in their local area. This means they can act as an anchor for the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement on the ground.”
In the meantime, everyone working in the region is wondering what’s next. Many observers worry that the environment of insecurity will continue to spread as members of armed groups who have left Mali begin to launch attacks in neighbouring countries.
Meanwhile, large numbers of displaced people are straining communities in southern Mali and in neighbouring countries, which already face extreme hardship. Of the estimated 168,000 refugees who have fled into neighbouring countries, for example, roughly 50,000 have gone to Niger, a country still recovering from its own non-international conflict, which ended only a few years ago. Niger has also been receiving refugees from northern Nigeria as well as migrant workers expelled from Libya.
Whether or not the UN peacekeeping operation is successful and greater stability is brought back to northern Mali, the humanitarian needs will remain great for some time. “Whatever happens, we believe there is still a need for purely humanitarian action in northern Mali and the region,” concludes Jean-Nicolas Marti, ICRC’s head of delegation in Niamey, Niger.
A girl walks by a building pockmarked with bullet holes caused by intense fighting in the Malian city of Gao in March 2013. Photo: ©Reuters/Joe Penney
power is very weak.
limits their access
to basic services
aid remains the
principal source of
head of the ICRC
Gao in northern Mali.
In the municipality of Bourem, near Gao in northern Mali, a displaced person receives food from the ICRC in April 2013.
Photo: ©Douma Mahamadou/ICRC
“Public services —
and health care
— ground to a halt
when most of the
staff qualified to run
and habitat activities
for the ICRC
in the region.