Mali, it seems, is no exception to the rule that where war leads humanitarian crises follow. The French-led advance into the towns of northern Mali — Diabaly, Konna, Douentza, Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal — has been fast and effective.
In a little over two weeks around 3,000 French soldiers with armored vehicles and air support have ousted the fighters of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies from every town in the desert north, meeting little resistance along the way.
But with the focus on the military gains, the human impact has slid from view as aid agencies warn that the combination of insecurity, food shortages and drought threatens the lives of a million people.
An international pledging conference to fund the African military mission that is supposed to take over from France raised $450 million this week. In contrast, an appeal for $370 million for humanitarian work in Mali has so far raised only $3 million, less than 1 percent of what is needed.
Fernando Arroyo, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Bamako, told GlobalPost that this shortfall means, “It’s a nearly impossible task.”
“Access is the main concern,” he said. “In the north generally, and in localities recently brought back under government control.”
During the extremists’ 10-month reign over northern Mali, about 370,000 people fled their homes — 230,000 to the safer south of Mali and the other 140,000 across borders into Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger.
Since the deployment of the French military on Jan. 11, the number uprooted has increased again, with an additional 15,000 fleeing to neighboring countries and another 10,000 to the south.
Most of those who stay inside Mali’s borders end up with family members in the capital or other major towns such as Segou and Mopti. Mali is one of the world’s poorest countries, so the pressure of the new arrivals can stretch already fragile existences to a breaking point.
“People are really struggling to make ends meet,” said Sadou Maiga, head of Coren, a local aid agency in Segou, where global charity Plan International intends to start delivering aid to 50,000 families hosting relatives from the north.
The UN refugee agency estimates there are about 50,000 displaced people in Bamako, most of them arriving only with what they could carry.
Aissata Yattara, a 40-year-old mother of six, has taken in 15 relatives over the last year — from Timbuktu and elsewhere in the north.
“They are family, I cannot abandon them,” she said.
Her crumbling two-room bungalow in a city suburb, where sewage runs in the gutters and electricity is sporadic, has been transformed into a dormitory with mattresses covering every inch of floor space.
A towering, good-humored matriarch, Yattara bore the extra burden lightly. But she said she needed assistance, and it was not coming.
“Life was not easy before, now I support so many more but nobody is helping us,” she said
Those still in the north, however, have it the toughest.
“The humanitarian situation in the north is deteriorating very quickly because of security, but also the lack of food,” Arroyo said.
Food supplies are perennially scarce in the arid parts of Mali, north of the Niger River. But the extremist takeover last year and the recent military intervention have worsened the food situation to the extent that, according to Arroyo, “the north will become unlivable soon.”
The World Food Program (WFP) said 1.2 million Malians face food shortages due to the lingering effects of the 2011 drought and because of disruption to normal trade caused by the conflict. Food, the organization said, is simply not reaching markets.
According to assessments carried out by aid workers, there are 210,000 people at risk of sever acute malnutrition.
“Communities are effectively cut off and if the situation continues then food stocks in the area will only last a few weeks,” warned Philippe Conraud, Mali country director at the aid agency Oxfam.
“Things are set to get worse for people who cannot or do not wish to leave and have been living in incredibly tough circumstances for almost a year,” he said.
The northern economy in general has suffered catastrophically under the extremist rule that destroyed Mali’s tourism industry and caused domestic and regional trade to dry up.
Aid agencies are in regular discussions with the French military but, like journalists trying to report the conflict, they find access is severely restricted due to the fighting.
Aid agencies said that once they can reach recaptured areas the priorities will be protection of vulnerable groups, especially women and children, giving shelter and providing drinking water, sanitary living conditions, basic healthcare and food.
There are other concerns as reports emerge of revenge attacks and reprisal killings carried out by the Malian army and angry civilians against those accused of being Islamists or Tuareg rebels, a separatist group with whom the extremists were briefly allied.
Aid agencies are calling for human rights monitors to be deployed and for the planned European Union military training force to bolster respect for human rights among Malian soldiers.
“We are concerned that as events are unfolding so rapidly, foreign military support will not sufficiently emphasize training and compliance with international humanitarian and human rights law,” said Oxfam’s Conraud.
As the military action in Mali moves into a new phase, with African-led desert fighting intended to replace the French-led assaults on urban areas, access to the north will continue to be fraught with difficulties — compounding already difficult daily living across the country.
“It’s not just about drought and food insecurity, now it’s also about war,” Arroyo said. “But the humanitarian problems in Mali are bigger and deeper than the problems in the north.”