(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Making do in Mali

    The last year witnessed a small but growing trend of Syrians taking the long way round to Europe via Mauritania, and then overland to the north African coast. But some have end up settling for a while in Mali, along the way.

    Mouna Khalil and her family arrived in Mali in 2013, after first fleeing Syria into Lebanon, and then flying to Mauritania and travelling overland. They hoped to make a fresh start, but life in the poor, majority Muslim nation’s capital Bamako was not what the family had expected. While relieved to have escaped the constant shelling and the sound of fighter jets, the harsh living conditions in their new home make them feel they have replaced one kind of suffering for another.

    “Mali is a poor country. There is nothing here, no life,” says Mouna, seated on the porch of the house the family is renting on Bamako’s outskirts. 

    “I wish we could leave and go somewhere else – Algeria, Morocco or even back to Syria, anywhere but here,” says her husband, Bakary.

    Many of the Syrians arriving in Mali via Mauritania hope to continue onwards with smugglers and make the perilous journey through Algeria and Morocco to reach the seaside Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla. Between January and April this year, according to UNHCR, at least 436 Syrian refugees crossed the Mauritania-Mali border.

    Others, like the Khalils, lack the money to pay smugglers and fear making long, desert treks with small children.

    Mali is hardly the ideal destination for refugees. Its own four-year-long crisis has left tens of thousands of Malians displaced or living as refugees in neighbouring countries. Government resources and humanitarian agencies are strained to the limits. Many Syrians say they have received little or no assistance from the authorities or from NGOs. They rely for help on their Malian neighbours, many of whom have themselves been displaced.

    “People here are poor just like us; still, everyone is helping out bringing clothes and toys for the children,” says Mouna.

    A wealthy Malian businessman has offered to pay for the children’s school fees. Another neighbour paid the rent when the family was facing eviction.

    Mali has only granted refugee status to 92 Syrians, while a further 10 are awaiting the outcome of asylum claims. The Khalils abandoned their efforts to be recognised as refugees and many other unregistered Syrians are thought to be residing in the country.

    Idrissa Maiga, the head of a local association organising yearly trips to Mecca during the hajj, says at least 20 Syrians arrive at the Maison de Hajj every month.

    “We house them for a few days while they try to find their bearings and look for other accommodation,” he says.


    Go back to the intro page or see the next feature:

    Next feature: Brazil
    A long way from home: Syrians in unexpected places
    Making do in Mali
  • Are the ADF ‘Islamist’ scapegoats in Congo?

    Attacks on civilians in the Beni region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo have killed more than 500 people in the past 18 months. Congolese officials accuse the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist rebel group with links to Uganda, of committing the massacres. But it’s not that simple. Behind the narrative of an Islamist menace there is evidence of Congolese military involvement, with potential links to smuggling rackets.

     

    Kolu Mosekuse remembered the attack on Ngadi, a sleepy village just off the N4 highway along the border with Uganda. As we walked down a dirt path lined with food stalls, a repair shop and a makeshift filling station, Mosekuse, a village deputy, described how the gunmen launched the attack on the village.

     

    “Because it was dark, we couldn’t see them, but we heard them coming, firing at anyone who happened to be on the road.”

     

    He pointed to a cluster of houses barely visible under the heavy canopy. “Over there, lived a soldier, his wife and the couple’s three children. They killed the woman and the two oldest children. The baby that the woman was cradling in her arms was the only one who survived.”

     

    The authorities immediately identified the attackers as the ADF, a rebel group based in the Ruwenzori mountains, close to the Ugandan border. Over the past two years, they’ve been accused of committing a string of atrocities against civilians in Beni.

     

    Between October 2014 and December 2015, more than 500 people were killed, according to testimonies from victims, local authorities and civic groups collected by the Study Center for the Promotion of Peace, Democracy and Human Rights, a local NGO that documents violence in the region.

    Who is responsible?

    While there is no doubt the ADF is responsible for a number of abuses, including murder, rape and the recruitment of children, a recent report by the Congo Research Group, a project monitoring violence in the east, has questioned that official line. It has called on the government to launch an urgent investigation led by a senior military prosecutor.

    “The ADF is not really what people make it out be,” said Jason Stearns, the report’s lead researcher. “It’s not a foreign Islamist organisation, but a militia deeply rooted in local society with links to political and economic actors. While ADF are responsible for a majority of the massacres, it is clear that other groups, including Congolese soldiers, were involved as well.”

     

    The researchers spent six months interviewing more than 100 people, including victims, civil society leaders and officers from the national army, the FARDC.

     

    It concluded that, “In addition to commanders directly tied to the ADF, members of the… national army; former members of the [rebel] Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie—Kisangani/Mouvement de Libération (RCD–K/ML); as well as members of communal militias have also been involved in attacks on the civilian population.”

     

    What is driving the violence?

     

    Some officers reported being offered up to $250 for every person killed – but they were not forthcoming in revealing by whom. In some cases, FARDC troops arrived in a village one or two days before the massacres started.

     

    See more

    Congo’s forgotten war: The militia of Mambasa

    Much aid, little long-term impact in DRC

     

    Looming DRC offensive prompts “humanitarian fallout” fears

     

    War on women – film

    “The soldiers were there to protect the village. Instead, they attacked the population,” said Modest Makuta, a 27-year-old taxi driver from Tenambo, a community on the outskirts of Oicha where many of the attacks have taken place.

     

    Makuta suffered blows to the head and neck from a machete he said was wielded by a soldier in an attack in October 2014 in which eight people were killed.

     

    “They wore the uniforms of the Congolese army and I recognised their commander, a major called Byamungu. We never had any problems with the ADF and they never attacked the village.”

     

    The frequency of the violence, which has taken place over a vast territory, and the fact that some of the attackers speak Kinyarwanda – a language not normally spoken in this part of Congo  – suggests the involvement of multiple armed groups, from across a wide geographical area.

     

    The ADF has been based in Congo for more than two decades. It has forged strong links with local political and economic figures and has tapped into trafficking networks, mainly timber, taking advantage of corruption within the FARDC and the local administration.

     

    This illicit economy has been at the heart of the violence and instability in the east for decades. The continued unrest legitimises a large military presence.

     

    False claims

     

    Local political leaders refer to the ADF as an Islamist militia and stress its ties to extremist networks across the region, such as al-Shabab in Somalia and Kenya.

     

    “The mechanisms of what’s happening in Beni today are the same as what we see in Nigeria – where you have Boko Haram – and other places,” said Jules Kasereka, the mayor of Beni.

     

    The UN’s peacekeeping and stabilisation mission in Congo, MONUSCO, while more cautious, has largely backed this narrative.

     

    “The situation is complex,” MONUSCO deputy force commander, General Jean Baillaud, told IRIN. “Several armed groups are operating in the region. However, we consider ADF to be the main threat because of its links to armed groups in neighbouring countries.”

     

    Military leaders say the ADFs guerrilla tactics make it hard to defeat.

     

    The ADF “is a terrorist organisation that, while it has lost some of its capacity, remains hard to eradicate,” General Marcel Mbangu, the FARDC commander in Beni, told IRIN. “There is no need to speculate. The ADF are responsible for the attacks.”

     

    But some civil society leaders and human rights groups believe the authorities are deliberately exaggerating the ADF’s role.

     

    “To directly point out ADF as responsible for a certain attack is very difficult,” said Michel Musafiri, a researcher with a human rights group in Beni. “So far, only a few attackers have been identified. When authorities and others claimed fighters were members of the ADF, it later turned this was not the case.”

     

    Culture of impunity

     

    When massacres have taken place close to where peacekeepers and FARDC troops were stationed, the troops have failed to intervene. In some cases, FARDC commanders have allegedly ordered their troops not to respond.

    Displaced people in DRC’s Katanga province

    Displaced people in DRC’s Katanga province
    Stephen Graham/IRIN
    Victims of violence - displaced in Katanga

    “The authorities have focused all their efforts on fighting the ADF without properly investigating who is behind the attacks and [making sure] the responsible [are] brought to justice,” said Musafiri.

     

    The authorities have arrested a number of individuals believed to be associated with the ADF, but no one has ever been tried or convicted. This has led human rights groups to believe there may have been high-level complicity.  

     

    “Recognising that many of the violations are driven by local rivalries is key to bringing stability to North Kivu,” said Teddy Kataliko, a civil society leader, referring to the province that includes Beni.

     

    The ADF has been challenged by FARDC and MONUSCO’s Force Intervention Brigade – a unit specifically tasked with taking on and neutralising armed groups. In January 2014, they launched a joint anti-ADF offensive. It was  codenamed Sukola 1 after the Lingala word for “clean”.

     

    Hundreds of ADF fighters were killed, as well as civilians, and their camps were ransacked. But all joint operations were suspended in January 2015 following allegations of abuse by two Congolese generals. MONUSCO has been eager to relaunch the offensive.

     

    While the FIB has a mandate to act unilaterally, this is not the most effective approach, said General Baillaud.

     

    “For us, it's much more efficient to be able to work with the Congolese, to support them, to complement them,” he told IRIN. “Our current priority is a political expectation to have the conditions for joint operations to resume, which has to be given at the top level, in this case the Kinshasa government.”

     

    But, according to the Congo Research Group, “it is clear that the Congolese government and [MONUSCO] have not put sufficient effort into addressing this crisis and have incorrectly identified the enemy.”

     

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    The International Women’s Media Foundation supported Katarina Höije’s reporting from the Democratic Republic of the Congo

    Are the ADF ‘Islamist’ scapegoats in Congo?
  • Life still hard in northern Mali, despite peace deal

    Many people in northern Mali had high hopes their lives would improve following the signing of a peace deal in June, but the ongoing fighting in the north of the country is increasingly threatening the livelihoods of millions, affecting everything from access to food, water, education and grazing.

    Since the conflict began in 2012, households have struggled to find work and collect crops as the effects of climate change and persistent insecurity make it harder and harder to eke out an existence. While some of the estimated 136,000 refugees and 90,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) have begun to return home, many remain living within host communities or camps. 

    In order to get by, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of people in Mali have borrowed money, sold off livestock, or become involved in illegal activities such as trafficking, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

    No food or water

    An estimated 3.1 million people in Mali are considered to be “food insecure,” according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body OCHA. This means approximately one-fifth of the population either doesn’t have enough to eat or lacks access to nutritious foods, such as meat and vegetables.

    The majority live in the north, where forced displacement, collapsed markets and limited humanitarian access to deliver food aid have created these conditions. The situation has been worsened by reduced access to grazing grounds for animals and increasing numbers of farmers who abandon their fields, fearing attacks by armed groups.

    “We’re enormously affected by the crisis,” said Kadidja Konaté, a farmer in Konna, who explained that in previous years she received food aid, including rice, cooking oil and millet, from the government. This year, she hasn’t received any help.

    The government, along with partners such as WFP, FAO and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), has so far been able to reach just 220,000 of the 450,000 targeted people in need of agriculture and livestock support this year. 

    Despite above average rainfall levels, according to the National Early Warning System, irregular rains at the beginning of the season were reported in many areas of the country, disrupting planting cycles. 

    “Normally you’ll have a few good years in between droughts when communities can recover,” said Wanalher Ag Alwaly, a humanitarian consultant in Gao. “In Mali, because of constant insecurity, communities are less resilient.”

    To make matters worse, more than 54,000 people in northern Mali don’t have adequate access to drinking water, OCHA reports. Many water sources have dried up, including ponds and wells, due to the lack of rains early in the season. Pumps have fallen into disrepair and can’t be fixed due to insecurity.

    No market access

    From May to July 2015, access to markets in Timbuktu was also constrained by insecurity. Since then the situation has slightly improved but there are still some villages where freedom of movement is limited by the fear of being harassed or looted. 

    “It was quite difficult for many people to attend weekly fairs and, in some cases, people were attacked and robbed coming from the market,” said Jean-Pierre Nereyabagabo, the economic security coordinator for ICRC in Mali.

    In Menaka, a town with a mostly nomadic Tuareg population close to the border with Niger, staple foods like rice, millet and cooking oil, have become scarce as bandits attacking trucks and private cars have made drivers reluctant to transport goods from the northern city of Gao and neighbouring Niger.

    “Trucks going by road from Gao and Ansongo are stopped by armed men, who steal vehicles, rob drivers and passengers and sometimes even kill the drivers,” said local Menaka politician Bajan Ag Hamatou.

    According to Ag Hamaotu, hundreds of tonnes of food, including food aid, were stolen between January and July this year.

    “The population is suffering,” he said.

    Malnutrition

    At least 715,000 children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition in northern Mali, OCHA says.

    A recent national SMART survey found that the global acute malnutrition (GAM) rate was 12.4 percent and severe acute malnutrition (SAM) was 2.8 percent.  In Timbuktu, where much of the fighting has taken place, these rates are 17.5 percent and 3.5 percent, respectively.

    WHO considers GAM rates above 10 percent to be “serious.”

    “Many pregnant women and lactating mothers can’t afford to buy meat or find vegetables for themselves and their children,” said Moussa Daou, a doctor at the Cescom health clinic in Mopti, explaining that in some areas, food prices have doubled or even tripled.

    Loss of grazing

    Mali has been growing increasingly hotter and drier since the 1960s, with rainfall having dropped by 30 percent since 1998. The desert is expanding southward at a rate of 48 kilometres per year, forcing whole communities to migrate and pushing them on to land occupied by other groups.

    Sekou Ladjou, a herder from Konna in Mali’s Mopti region, told IRIN that he has watched “the rivers dwindle and grazing land disappear,” as rainfall has become increasingly scarce.

    Unable to afford fodder, some pastoralists have sold off parts of their herds in order to get cash instead that can provide basic necessities to feed their families.

    Since the beginning of 2015, a new Islamist extremist group called the Massina Liberation Movement (MLM) has launched attacks in central Mali, around Ladjou’s hometown, making traditional nomadic routes and grazing lands increasingly inaccessible. In some areas, armed groups have destroyed grazing lands and water points.

    “Herders don’t dare to venture far from the village and those who do risk being robbed by bandits,” Ladjou said. 

    In a recent report by Human Rights Watch, farmers and traders describe being ambushed and robbed on their way to the market. As armed groups take control over areas and important trade routes, whole communities risk being trapped without access to food.

    Education woes

    Ongoing fighting and attacks in the region have forced some 450 schools to close, affecting the education of more than 20,500 students. At least 100 of these schools have closed since January.

    Additionally, year-end examinations were interrupted in the regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Mopti, making it impossible for many students to advance a grade level or continue on to university. In Mopti’s Douentza, the absentee rate for the Diploma of Fundamental Studies examination increased from eight percent in 2013 to 19 percent this year, according to OCHA.

    In some cases, the lack of education and means for families to support themselves leads to the recruitment of children by armed groups.

    “Children join armed groups for many reasons, including by being lured by false promises of education, to earn an income for their families or because they believe they will be able to protect their families and village from other armed actors,” said Ramsey Ben-Achour, child protection specialist with UNICEF.

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    Hard times in Mali, despite peace deal
  • What peace deal? No end to Mali conflict

    More than eight weeks after a landmark peace accord between Mali’s Bamako government and a Tuareg-led rebel coalition brought hope of an end to years of unrest, little has been done to end the fighting and militancy is once again on the rise.

    In recent months, Mali has experienced some of the worst violence since international forces pushed Islamist militants out of their northern strongholds in January 2013. The upsurge included a high-profile attack by al-Qaeda-linked Islamists on a popular hotel frequented by UN officials that left 13 people dead.

    “Unfortunately, so far, there has been more celebration of the accord itself, than actual progress towards its implementation,” said Susanna Wing, an associate professor of political science at Haverford College in California. “There will need to be ongoing and steady steps towards implementation.”

    But, as Wing explained, the International Monitoring Committee of the Peace and Reconciliation agreement – to be chaired by Algeria and tasked with ensuring the accord is implemented – has yet to even nominate its members.

    See: Is Mali’s peace process in peril?

    Until the committee starts work, the accord is just signatures on paper. And even if the committee does become functional, peace is far from guaranteed, especially given the varied motivations within the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), the diverse coalition of Tuareg rebel factions and Arab and Fulani separatist groups with whom the deal was brokered.

    “The peace deal's implementation can help tamp down some potential militancy and put aside a risk of continued clashes between CMA forces and pro-government militias as well as with the Malian government,” Andrew Lebovich, a researcher and visiting fellow with the European council on foreign relations, told IRIN. “But even a successful implementation of the accord will prompt groups to further fragment, which could further inflame tensions and lead to continued violence from all armed groups operating in the North.”

    In May, the International Crisis Group warned in a report that: “Mali is heading less toward lasting peace than toward a new phase of confrontations.” 

    Violence on the rise

    In northern Mali, different militant factions have picked up not just the pace of attacks, but also the severity. Clusters that were previously scattered or pushed back by international forces have also regrouped. Since the beginning of the year, the attacks have spread to the centre of the country, and in June, to the south near the borders with Ivory Coast and Burkina Faso.

    While the presence of international forces has made it more difficult for armed groups to operate, attacks on both military and civilian targets have increased.

    Earlier this month, on 7 August, gunmen launched an audacious attack on a hotel in Sévaré, a garrison town 600 kilometres north of Bamako. The hostage crisis ended 24 hours later when Malian troops, reportedly backed by French special forces, stormed the building. Four soldiers, five militants and five UN workers – two Ukrainians, a Nepalese, a South African and a Malian – died. Islamist fighters with ties to al-Qaeda-linked group al-Mourabitoun claimed responsibility for the attack. 

    At least 20 CMA “separatists” were reportedly killed earlier this week by a pro-government militia during three days of fighting in the north’s Kidal region. 

    Following the attacks, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, MINUSMA, set up a 20-kilometre “safety zone” around the town of Kidal on 18 August to try to restore peace.

    A lost cause?

    The optimism many Malians felt after international forces first liberated northern towns in 2013, and again following the signing of the peace accord in June, has now faded.

    See: Hopes for reconciliation – the view from Timbuktu

    It has been replaced by considerable doubt over the warring parties’ commitment to peace. The UN-brokered accord only briefly mentions subjects like access to education, jobs or justice, issues that are important to many northerners and fundamental to lasting progress.

    “Prioritising security overshadows the need to restore the state’s social function across the Malian territory,” Bruce Whitehouse, associate professor of anthropology at Lehigh University, said.

    Throughout northern Mali, basic social services and government institutions have yet to be restored and are unlikely to resume as long as the fighting continues.

    An estimated three million people don't have enough to eat, according to the United Nations and Mali officials. 

    And differences remain, even over the agreement itself. Many separatists are unhappy that although it calls for the creation of elected regional assemblies, it stops short of autonomy or federalism, a long-time rebel demand. 

    “The MNLA, the Azawad Liberation Movement, itself is divided over the new accord,” Wing said. “While the Malian government was clear that territorial integrity was non-negotiable, the autonomy of the north remains a goal for some….There will be no peace unless all parties agree to peace.”

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    What peace deal? No end to Mali conflict
  • Stateless in the Sahel

    Thousands of refugee children in western Mali are at risk of being stuck in the legal limbo of statelessness, which could mean little or no access to health care and higher education.

    While the Malian government, along with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), has issuing birth certificates to almost 8,000 children born to Mauritanian parents who took refuge in Mali between 1989 and 2014, the majority still have no legal paperwork linking them to either their country of origin or their country of asylum.

    Among them is seven-year-old Boubacar* who was born in a cattle camp in a small community near Kayes, in western Mali, near the border with Mauritania, in 2008. 

    Boubacar's parents fled inter-communal clashes in Mauritania more than 20 years earlier and never returned. 

    “I was born in Mali,” Boubacar told IRIN. “I call myself Malian. Mali is my home.”

    But because his parents never registered his birth at the mayor’s office or local health clinic, the law considers him to be neither Malian nor Mauritanian. 

    This is despite the fact that both his parents and grandparents hold refugee status in Mali and are Mauritanian citizens. 

    “Because these children were born in exile, their births were never registered,” said Mamadou Keita, who works with the local NGO Stop Sahel in Kayes, where the majority of the Mauritanian refugees have settled. 

    “When a child is born [in Mali], the birth needs to be declared within one month… After one month, it becomes complicated and has to go through the courts,” he explained. 

    But because these children were born to refugee parents, many of whom live in remote communities, they never went through this legal process. 

    “These refugees have been living together with host populations in Kayes for years. They have their businesses…they are well integrated,” said Isabelle Michal, a public information officer with UNHCR in Bamako. 

    “Birth certificates [for their children] are a legal component of the integration process. [They] protect children who would otherwise be at risk of statelessness.” 

    No state, no services

    This issue of stateless refugee children isn’t unique to Mali.  

    Worldwide, more than 10 million people have no official nationality, according to UNHCR. Like Boubacar, many of them were born to refugee parents. Others were left without a country after borders were redrawn or new states emerged. 

    Without a birth certificate, Boubacar and the more than 7,800 other children like him in Mali are unable to receive state services, such as health care and other social protection services, or officially register for school after grade six. 

    For those refugee children wishing to stay in Mali permanently, unless they obtain a birth certificate they will never be able to register for a national ID card or passport, nor be they eligible to apply for citizenship in either Mali or Mauritania once they turn 18. 

    It will also be difficult for them to officially marry or, one day, be issued a death certificate. 

    “A birth certificate allows them to plan for a future,” Stop Sahel’s Keita said. “For example, it’s necessary to apply for higher education and receive study grants.”

    Attempts at legality

    The Malian government began a project to give refugee children birth certificates in 2012 but progress has been slow.

    While the births of an estimated 400 children born since 2012 in health clinics were automatically registered, any children who were born before 2012 or in their home, went undocumented. 

    In 2014, Mali ratified two international accords, the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, to ease the naturalization process of Mauritanian and other refugees.

    Under these instruments a child has the right to be issued a birth certificate wherever they are born, even if it is a different country to where their parents were born. 

    UNHCR, along with some local partner organizations such as Stop Sahel, have been working with the government to overcome some of the bureaucracy related to refugee registration and documentation for the past three years. But it wasn't until March, this year, that 32 birth certificates were presented to the children of Mauritanian refugees at a ceremony in Kayes.

    “We currently have…volunteers working to issue the birth certificates,” said Lassane Traore, the secretary general to the mayor of Djelebou.

    He said that since March, another 950 certificates have been written up and are ready to be distributed. 

    But Boubacar, like thousands of others, is still waiting for his birth certificate.

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    Stateless in the Sahel
  • Thousands flee violent upsurge in northern Mali

    A spike in violence in northern Mali has driven the number of people displaced in the country above 100,000, many of them urgently needing food, water and shelter as time runs out before the rainy season begins.

    The situation is worst in the northern Timbuktu region, where an estimated 23,000 people have been driven from their homes in only a few days, fleeing a marked upsurge in attacks by rebel coalitions and government-controlled militias.

    Many key players were absent from a peace signing ceremony in the capital Bamako on May 15 that had been trumpeted as a solution to years of conflict involving the Malian government, the militias, Islamist groups and Tuareg rebels.

    See: Is Mali’s peace process in peril?

    “The situation is evolving very fast and we are seeing a large increase (in the number) of displaced people, from just over 30,000 to 53,000 in the Timbuktu region, in less than one week,” Sally Haydock, the World Food Programme (WFP) country director in Mali, told IRIN.

    An additional 2,200 people have been displaced in the Gao region and 1,600 have left villages and settlements in the Mopti region since April, bringing the total number of internally displaced people (IDP) in Mali to just over 100,000.

    Living rough

    The fighting in northern Mali, which has seen a resurrection of attacks on civilians and humanitarian workers, persists despite several truces, preliminary peace deals, and increased engagement from the international community.

    We fled Bintagoungou because of the rebels who pillaged our homes and took our belongings

    Almost all those who have fled their homes are staying with host families, as there are not yet any official camps for them to go to in the Timbuktu region.

    Many live in temporary shelters or under trees, which offer little protection from the harsh desert wind or scorching heat. Most arrived with no belongings or foodstuff, after having been forced to leave their homes in a rush.

    “We fled Bintagoungou because of the rebels who pillaged our homes and took our belongings,” said Oumou Kola, 48, who earlier this month took her family 40 kilometres south to seek refuge in the larger town of Goundam.

    “They often beat our spouses and children,” Kola told IRIN. “They deprived us of all work and activities.”

    Needs

    The presence of tens of thousands of new IDPs has added to an already difficult food situation, as more than three million people in Mali struggle to have enough to eat.

    A national food security and nutrition survey, which was conducted earlier this year by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, found that 410,000 people were in need of immediate food assistance.

    This number is expected to rise as food stocks decrease during the lean season, which usually starts in June, and is likely to get even higher following this week’s influx.

    “Here in the north, people don’t produce a lot of food (to begin with),” said Callixte Kayitare, head of WFP’s Timbuktu office. “If a family or household receives even a few people their food will finish quickly.”

    “At the moment, we live in very precarious conditions because the people who are hosting us are themselves quite poor. We have children, and among them many are students who have practically lost the school year.”

    Attempts at aid

    Insecurity in northern Mali, where Tuareg rebels drove out the army in 2012 with the help of a number of Islamist groups, continues to pose a challenge to humanitarian workers trying to assist the displaced populations and host communities.

    See: No justice, no peace for northern Mali

    In March, the International Committee of the Red Cross stopped all their activities outside urban areas following a deadly attack on one of its vehicles. Earlier this month, Spanish NGO Action Against Hunger (ACF) pulled all non-essential staff out of the region after a staff member was killed.

    The attackers will be gone before the soldiers get there

    Remaining aid organisations, such as the UN's humanitarian agency, OCHA, WFP, Handicap International and several local partners, say they plan to start distributing prepositioned supplies later this month, including food aid.

    “The fact that we were prepared for the lean season allowed us to act quickly when the crisis started,” said Maude Berset, with WFP in Bamako.

    However, with ongoing attacks and poor roads it will still be a race against time to get supplies to those who need it most before the rainy season comes.

    “Getting stuff to Timbuktu is a logistical challenge, but we have done it before and we are well-prepared,” said OCHA’s Ngolo Diarra.

    Little protection

    There are 9,000 peacekeepers with the UN mission in Mali, MINUSMA, around 1,000 French troops, and Mali’s army is also present in the northern region. But attacks on civilians, especially in remote villages, are still very hard to prevent.

    “They are protecting as much as they can but the area is waste,” said Colonel Souleymane Maiga, a spokesperson for the Malian army. “There are no roads and the soldiers can’t guarantee security in every village that lies scattered in the desert.”

    Many of the armed groups are natives of the region and know the area very well, the colonel added. This allows them to launch hit-and-run attacks.

    “The attackers will be gone before the soldiers get there,” he said.

    Health issues are also a concern, particularly in the makeshift settlements.

    “When people live in cramped settlements with no access to clean water or proper sanitation, there is always the risk for cholera and other diseases,” said Alassane Aguili, a representative of Africa-based development NGO Africare.

    A number of cases of diarrhoea, particularly among young children, have already been recorded this week, according to Africare.

    Nowhere to go

    Inconveniently nestled between the Niger River and the harsh Sahelian desert, those attempting to flee from villages outside Timbuktu city have few options.

    Their houses have been looted and their fields destroyed. They have nothing to return to

    To the north lies the territory where rebels and armed bandits continue to attack both villages and desert settlements.

     

    The strip of land to the south where many seek refuge is only a few kilometres wide and requires crossing a river to reach.

    The UN and aid agencies say they are trying to determine whether or not the recent IDPs plan to stay long-term or return home soon.

    But as the attacks continue, Aguili said he doubts people will be returning to their villages in the near future.

    “Their houses have been looted and their fields destroyed,” he told IRIN. “They have nothing to return to.”

    Kola said she would only take his family back to Bintagoungou if it was safe to do so and if people could go about their work without feeling scared.

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  • Briefing: Is Mali’s peace process in peril?

    The last few years in Mali have been busy: an independence declaration, a coup, a mutiny, a northern takeover by Islamist groups, a French military intervention, a hostage crisis, a guerrilla campaign, a preliminary peace deal, and finally, in February, a ceasefire.

    Given all the turmoil, it is little surprise the last two entries – the peace deal and the ceasefire – are now under grave threat.

    Tuareg rebels have long fought for independence, or at least greater autonomy, for the large part of northern Mali they call Azawad. The rebels are dragging their feet on signing the latest peace deal and fresh clashes have prompted UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to warn that the situation is in danger of unravelling:

    Here’s a look at how we got here and what we can expect to happen next:

    HOW WE GOT HERE

    The familiar pattern for decades has been Tuareg rebellion, then peace talks, growing dissatisfaction and ultimately renewed conflict. The stakes were raised, however, when many Tuareg rebels fought as mercenaries during the Libyan civil war in 2011 and returned with greater experience and weaponry.

    Displeasure at president Amadou Toumani Touré’s handling of the rebellion led to his ouster in a March 2012 coup, which opened the door to Tuareg fighters seizing several northern towns and cities with the help of a growing number of Islamist insurgent groups.

    The Tuareg declared independence for Azawad only to see the Islamists begin imposing sharia law. The interim government cried for help and the French military launched Operation Serval aimed at ousting the Islamist militants from northern Mali. The mission ended in July 2014 when France replaced it with a Chadian-based counter-terrorism operation across the Sahel region.

    Meanwhiile, in May 2014, Tuareg rebels had retaken the northern city of Kidal. The defeat and the rebels’ subsequent push south towards the regional capital Gao and Menaka, close to the border with Niger, convinced the Malian government to launch a fresh bid for peace.

    President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta and international observers were hopeful that a deal might finally be reached last month, following eight months of intense negotiations.

    But the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a coalition of Tuareg rebel factions and Arab and Fulani separatist groups, refused to sign, saying the accord failed to meet their demands for a “geographic, political and juridical entity”.

    WHAT’S ON THE TABLE?

    The latest accord would, broadly speaking, give greater powers and resources to the north but stops short of granting it full political autonomy.

    It emphasises reconciliation within Mali, which should remain a united, secular nation rather than allow for an independent entity made up of the three northern regions: Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu.

    It’s a compromise that falls short.

    It proposes giving more powers to elected regional assemblies and leaders in the north, as well as allowing for greater representation of northerners in governmental institutions.

    Mali observers say the agreement’s use of the term “secular identity” appears designed to water down rebel aspirations.

    “It’s a compromise that falls short of the rebels’ goals of either an independent Azawad or a Sharia-based Mali,” Benjamin Soares, a senior researcher at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, told IRIN.

    WHERE EXACTLY ARE WE?

    Bruce Whitehouse, a cultural anthropologist at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, believes the government and the rebels are as far apart as ever.

    “There are factions on both sides opposed to making any concessions whatsoever,” he told IRIN. “We've known all along that a large portion of the separatist groups' rank-and-file would never settle for anything less than independence. Meanwhile, opposition to the agreement has been getting more strident in Bamako.”

    While the government and northern rebel groups prevaricate, the security situation continues to deteriorate.

    “Any further delay in signing and implementing the peace agreement can only benefit terrorist groups, whose threats on the ground are increasing... [with] the population being the primary victim,” Radhia Achouri, a spokesperson for MINUSMA, the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, told IRIN.

    Main mediator Algeria, MINUSMA, the African Union, France, and Mali’s neighbours all regard the peace deal as a vital first step towards restoring order and security in the north.

    The delay has resulted in renewed fighting between insurgent groups and the Malian army, inter-communal clashes, the withdrawal of security forces from several areas, and a resurrection of attacks on humanitarian workers and civilians.

    Growing frustration over failures to find a solution to the crisis is also fuelling Islamist extremism. Security sources in the region say groups like Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have stepped up their recruitment of unemployed young people who are fed up with the current situation.

    WHAT NEXT?

    The UN Security Council has urged the three main separatist groups to sign the deal no later than 15 May or face sanctions.

    On Monday, a spokesperson for the CMA said the rebels were prepared to sign the deal, which was drawn up at meetings in Algiers in February, but that further talks were needed first.

    One of the key differences between this and past peace agreements is the strong involvement of the international community, which has played a larger role during the negotiations and promises to carry that through in any upcoming implementation phase.

    Reaching an agreement is the easy part.

    Gilles Yabi, with West African think tank WATHI, said pressure was definitely being applied on the different parties by the international community, especially Mali’s neighbours. “Whoever fails to sign the agreement brokered in Algiers will be seen as the one who halted the peace process,” he told IRIN.

    But even if the peace deal is signed by 15 May, this is only the first step. Accords in the past have taken more than three years to implement, only to break down again as different factions vie for influence.

    “Reaching an agreement is the easy part. It’s implementing it that will be difficult, and why previous peace agreements have failed,” Yabi told IRIN.

    Disarmament and reintegration of Tuareg fighters into the national army could help speed up the process. However, the ongoing clashes and government attempts to mobilise Tuareg and Arab militias loyal to Bamako have severely damaged trust between the parties.

    “Even if the armed groups sign the accord, which includes disarmament within one year, it is unlikely the rebels will disarm before political reforms are in place,” Yabi said, expecting the basic structural changes alone to take up to 18 months.

    Whatever happens over the next few weeks, Mali’s peace process faces a long road ahead.

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  • Adversity in northern Mali*

    Only just recovering from a brutal Islamist occupation, residents of northern Mali are facing further devastation following recent clashes between separatist rebel forces and government troops. The violence has heightened insecurity, throttled an already difficult aid operation and driven up hunger.

    Parts of Mali’s north have fallen back into the hands of three separatist rebel groups since the clashes in May in northern Kidal Region. More than 18,000 people were forced from their homes. The fighting and the lingering impact of the 2012-2013 food crisis have had a severe effect on people, limiting their access to food and livelihoods for the most vulnerable.

    Tensions between communities, persistent insecurity, rumours and fears of violence have also caused displacements.

    “The recent fighting has set back the humanitarian situation and deepened the crisis. Services in the north are still restricted and access to health care, education and markets are limited, not to mention food insecurity that is affected by recent displacement,” said Erin Weir, protection and advocacy adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

    “There is very little help for people who are struggling to rebuild their homes and their lives after years of conflict. However, crises elsewhere are overshadowing the dire situation in the north and Mali is quickly becoming a forgotten crisis,” Weir said.

    Salamatou Ba of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Mali’s northern Gao Region said: “There is a huge deficit between what is needed and what we are able to deliver. We know that the situation will continue to get worse and we would like to do more, but the money is simply not there.”

    Aid curtailed

    The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) halted food distribution outside the northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu following an attack on staff members earlier this year.

    “Following the attack and kidnapping of three of our staff in May we suspended all operations outside of major towns… Since then we have slowly been scaling up our operations to the level before the attack,” said ICRC’s Valery Mboah Nana in Bamako.

    Some 1.9 million people, or 11 percent of the population, now need food assistance - up from 1.3 million at the start of 2014, according OCHA.

    The fighting in Kidal disrupted food distribution by the World Food Programme (WFP), whose Mali operations have only been one-third funded.  

    “The regular food distributions were suspended for about a week [after the May clashes] and then resumed progressively as security conditions improved. However, the incident pushed 18,000 people out of their homes, increasing the humanitarian needs,” said Emmanuel Bigenimana, WFP emergency coordinator in Mali.

    “Tensions within communities and concerns of retribution mean people do not feel safe to return home. The constant power shifts - one day an area belongs to the rebels, the other day it is back in government hands - means people might feel secure one minute, the next they are inclined to flee again”

    Hahadou Ag Kaoussane, the mayor of N’Tilit locality near Gao, was forced to flee when armed men claiming to be members of the separatist National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) rebels took control of the village. He described the gunmen as “thieves and bandits” intent on causing fear.

    “They are all over town. Some of them are responsible for looting shops and people’s homes in Gao during the rebel takeover. During the occupation they fled to refugee camps in Burkina Faso and now they have returned,” he told IRIN.

    Since the armed men entered N’Tilit, aid NGOs have kept off.

    More in need

    According to a food security assessment in March, 945,284 people are currently food insecure in Mali’s north. This number includes 257,859 in phase IV or an emergency phase, and 687,425 in phase III, which is defined as crisis. The survey includes the regions of Gao, Kidal, Timbuktu and four districts in the region of Mopti where large communities of IDPs remain.

    While those displaced from northern Mali have gradually been returning since the ouster of Islamist insurgents in early 2013 after a nine-month occupation, many are still worried about their safety and some have been forced to flee once more.

    “Tensions within communities and concerns of retribution mean people do not feel safe to return home. The constant power shifts - one day an area belongs to the rebels, the other day it is back in government hands - means people might feel secure one minute, the next they are inclined to flee again,” said NRC’s Weir.

    Factional rebel clashes have also driven people from their homes. Husseini Dicko and his family fled inter-rebel clashes to settle in the open along the shores of River Niger near Gao where survival is a daily struggle.

    “It is not our land. We have no right to farm here. Even if there is fish in the river we can’t catch it because it belongs to the villagers,” said Halima Dicko, Husseini’s wife.


    Difficult survival

    In Bandiagara, a district in the central Mopti region, one the worst hit by food scarcity, people have been forced to cut meals and sell items to survive. Last year, rains failed in many areas across Mali. Usually at their heaviest between June and September, they arrived late and ended early in Bandiagara.

    “People have already started leaving Bandiagara, searching for work in towns and on farms in neighbouring districts,” said Fatoumata Maiga, who works with Oxfam in Gao. “Some families have started selling their cattle at low prices simply to survive. Most have reduced their intake of food. The majority of households are now only consuming one meal per day instead of three.”

    Herders do not have enough water for their animals, said Wanalher Ag Alwaly who works for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in Gao. “Already forced to slaughter some of their animals to feed their families last year, they have no choice now but to sell them at a very low prices.”

    Algateck Ag Ouwaha, a community leader in N’Tilit, told IRIN that many herders are too afraid of bandit attacks to venture more than a few kilometres from their villages. As a result, they are concentrated in a small area, where pasture is fast running out.

    “Grazing land is becoming scarce and sometimes herders are forced to cross into areas belonging to other pastoralists, with the risk of clashes,” he said.

    Markets are also starved as people are unable to travel out of towns as the roads are unsafe for traders due to risks of banditry. Road tolls for trucks coming from Kidal to Gao have also doubled since last year, putting off many hauliers.

    “We take huge risks, first leaving Kidal where we risk being attacked by bandits and then you never know who is guarding the checkpoints,” said a Gao truck driver who only gave his name as Soumeila.

    Recurrent clashes, difficulty in resolving the crisis in the north, displacements and attacks have complicated humanitarian operations and increased the suffering of civilians in the vast arid region.

    The UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, which is tasked with helping the country back on its feet after the political and security crisis triggered by the March 2012 armed coup, is around 3,000 troops short of its full strength of 12,000.

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    *Correcting paragraph 10 to remove sentence implying that WFP staff and trucks were attacked.

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    Adversity in northern Mali*

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