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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.