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As army operations ramp up in Mali, rebel groups impose ‘suffocating’ blockades 

‘The blockades are linked to the conflict: They grow as the conflict grows.’

A camp for displaced people in central Mali’s Bandiagara region. Residents arrived in December after jihadists made them leave their villages. Mamadou Tapily/TNH
A camp for displaced people in central Mali’s Bandiagara region. 7.1 million Malians are in need of relief across the country.

Armed groups in Mali are increasingly deploying siege tactics as a tool of war, targeting ever larger towns and regions, disrupting local economies, and creating major access problems for humanitarian groups that are already facing constraints due to the conflict.

Both jihadist and non-jihadist groups have enforced recent blockades on major northern towns and supply roads leading to neighbouring countries, while smaller-scale sieges – which can drag on for months if not years – are continuing in parts of central Mali.

Dealing with the blockades should be a “top priority [for the government] so that people and their goods can move freely and especially on the roads”, said Seyma Issa Maïga, the deputy mayor of the northern town of Gao, which faced a recent blockade.

Though sieges have been used for several years in Mali – and are being imposed in neighbouring Burkina Faso too – more have been established as rebels respond to ramped-up military pressure from the ruling junta and its Russian mercenary allies.

Mali’s junta seized power in 2020 and has won local support by vowing to expand state sovereignty lost to jihadist groups – which began a now-regionalised insurgency in 2012 – and to the Tuareg-dominated former separatist groups based in the north.

The increase in blockades – which follows the closure of a UN peacekeeping mission that the junta asked to leave last year – is worsening an already fragile humanitarian situation that has left 7.1 million Malians, roughly a third of the country, in need of relief.

A map of Mali with locators on Bamako, Timbuktu, Gao, Menaka, and Lere. Neighbouring countries are also labeled: Algeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Niger.

Several aid workers said humanitarian flights needed to bring aid to some blockaded areas have been disrupted because the army is not protecting airstrips that the UN mission, known by its acronym MINUSMA, was previously responsible for.

Despite the challenges, aid workers and community leaders said people in blockaded towns are working hard to mitigate the impact. They are pooling together resources, farming around their houses where possible, and arranging dialogues with fighters.

“Communities are not sitting idly by,” said a Malian aid worker based in the northeastern town of Ménaka, which is currently under blockade. “They are in the process of carrying out negotiations to be able to unblock the situation.”

The aid worker, like many individuals who spoke to The New Humanitarian for this story, asked not to be named due to perceived security risks.

Price rises and shuttered shops

Most blockades in recent years have been carried out by jihadists and have targeted villages in central parts of Mali. Militants would encircle areas with militia groups opposed to their rule, or where people were perceived to be aligned with the army.

More recent blockades have targeted towns and roads in the north – where the army has expanded its footprint – and the tactic has been adopted by a coalition of non-jihadist armed groups whose peace deal with the government collapsed last year.

“The blockades are linked to the conflict: They grow as the conflict grows,” said an aid worker based in the capital, Bamako, who is responsible for security issues at an international NGO. “As military operations strengthen, the blockades have increased.”

In December, the non-jihadist coalition declared a blockade on key roads in the north, though it has since lifted it. Earlier on, in August, the al-Qaeda-affiliated JNIM group started blockading northern roads and towns including Timbuktu.

Aid workers and local residents in Timbuktu, a city where over 130,000 people currently live, said the blockade – which caused prices to soar and shops to close – has not technically been lifted but that people have found ways to get around it and goods are now moving freely.

During the worst days of the blockade, peer support was crucial to get by, said a doctor from Timbuktu who asked not to be named. “If an acquaintance has problems or something else, everyone will be there to support them,” the doctor said.

Half a dozen local and international aid workers who spoke to The New Humanitarian cited the desert town of Ménaka, which is the main town in the Ménaka region, as the current place most impacted by a blockade.

Ménaka town has been surrounded by members of the Islamic State Sahel Province (IS-Sahel) over the past two years, and recently the fighters sealed the main road that is currently used by traders to bring in supplies.

A community leader from Ménaka said he believes the blockade is being imposed because jihadists want civilians to “distance themselves” from the army, and because the fighters want locals to push the state to negotiate with them.

A ‘suffocated’ city

The Ménaka leader, who also requested anonymity, said the blockade has “greatly impacted the community”, despite the Malian army managing to send military convoys to supply the town, and some assistance being provided by humanitarian groups. 

The aid worker in Ménaka, who works for an international NGO, said the price of rice has doubled and crime has spiked as supplies dwindle. They said shopkeepers are holding back stock, either to inflate prices or because they worry their goods will run out.

“Stocks that existed initially began to decline and dwindle until the city found itself practically suffocated,” the aid worker said. “If something is not done in the days to come, disaster will befall the community of Ménaka.”

The impact of the Ménaka blockade has been heightened because the town is hosting tens of thousands of people who have escaped two years of indiscriminate attacks by IS-Sahel. Some were facing famine-like conditions even before the embargo.

An illustration of jihadists besieging a Malian village – a common strategy they use against resistant populations. Negotiations and dialogue are often used to lift the blockades.
Dramane Diarra/TNH
An illustration of jihadists besieging a Malian village – a common strategy they use against resistant populations. Negotiations and dialogue are often used to lift the blockades.

Aid groups would typically use aircraft to circumvent blockades, but flights to Ménaka are operating on a reduced schedule – having previously been cancelled altogether – because of problems securing the runway after MINUSMA’s withdrawal.

Aid workers said a siege has also recently been imposed by JNIM on Léré, a town in the Timbuktu region, to restrict the movement of soldiers and mercenaries who are present in the town and who have allegedly carried out atrocities in the surrounding area.

The Bamako-based aid worker said the blockade would have “a great impact” because Léré is a crossroad town with a large market and hosts the bases of several humanitarian groups that operate in the wider area.

The director of an international NGO said aid programmes for recently displaced people in Léré – which is not a destination for humanitarian flights – have been disrupted, and that humanitarian workers are unable to travel outside the town. 

The impact of blockades can, meanwhile, last long beyond the point that they are lifted, several residents from previously besieged villages in central parts of Mali told The New Humanitarian.

Some said they missed planting seasons and had their livestock stolen during prolonged sieges, bankrupting them for years to come. Others said friends and family members were killed while trying to escape blockades.

“People got lost on the roads and some were caught,” said a resident and business owner from the village of Dinangourou, which suffered a siege in 2021. “[The jihadists] beat the women, and, in some cases, they even raped them.”

Negotiating with jihadists: ‘We tell them that these blockades are going to fall on the most vulnerable populations’

To end blockades – which contravene international humanitarian law when they target civilians or endanger civilian lives – communities often engage in dialogues with jihadists or with intermediates of the groups.

The aid worker in Ménaka said merchants who traded in the town have made personal efforts to open dialogues with IS-Sahel, while other vendors have tried to negotiate collectively. These efforts have not been successful as of yet, the aid worker said.

Negotiations with JNIM via religious intermediaries were also held by a local commission made up of leaders from different communities in Timbuktu, according to Yehia Tandina, a journalist from the town..

Tandina said the negotiations resulted in a partial lifting of the blockade late last year before military operations helped disperse the militants and reduce the impact of the embargo.

“We can lift the blockade, but if we violate the clauses, it gets reimposed.”

Community leaders engaged in the talks used religious and humanitarian arguments to try and persuade JNIM to lift the blockade, added Salaha Maïga, another resident of Timbuktu who said he was involved in the talks.

“We tell them that these blockades are going to fall on the most vulnerable populations, who have nothing to do with [the conflict],” Maïga, who is a member of Mali’s interim parliament, told The New Humanitarian.

In central Mali, negotiations often result in communities agreeing to disarm militias and submit to various rules laid down by jihadists. However, these agreements can fracture when rules aren’t respected, said the Bamako-based aid worker.

“The elevation of the blockade is not the problem. The problem is how to respect the criteria and recommendations that were agreed,” said the aid worker. “We can lift the blockade, but if we violate the clauses, it gets reimposed.”

To definitively end the use of blockade tactics, the community leader from Ménaka said “it will take concerted action by the defence and security forces, and involve the populations in denouncing the perpetrators who sometimes live within the communities.”

Maïga, the deputy mayor of Gao, called on people in northern regions to remain resilient while sieges are being imposed: “We were there in 2012 [when the conflict began] and we are still here today. We're going to be there tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.”

Additional reporting and editing by Philip Kleinfeld.

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