Insecurity hinders aid distribution in northern Mali
As Mali tries to restore order after the recent coup, a key challenge for the interim civilian government will be getting aid to people as the country verges on a humanitarian disaster.
Dioncounda Traore took over as Mali’s interim president on Thursday after leaders of a March 22 coup agreed to return power to civilians. Nearly 80 percent of Malian territory comprising the northern regions of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal is under the control of a mix of Tuareg-led rebels, who have declared an independent state in the north, and armed Islamic groups.
Aid agencies say about 100,000 internally displaced people urgently need assistance including shelter. Residents of some northern towns say they are trapped without food, water, electricity, money and medical care.
The World Food Programme and the International Committee of the Red Cross,reduced their operations in the north after being ransacked by armed groups at the end of last month. Other aid agencies including Oxfam were also ransacked.
As the humanitarian situation worsens, some Malians are calling for more aid to reach their compatriots. On Tuesday 2,000 people who marched through Mali’s capital Bamako, appealing for foreign help to dislodge Tuareg-led rebels in the north, saying a humanitarian crisis was looming and civilians had been abused.
But how might humanitarian aid reach those in need of it in insecure parts of Mali?
One Malian civilian told AlertNet a group of civilians plans on Friday to transport aid, including bags of rice, medical supplies and money that they have collected, to the northern towns of Gao and Timbuktu. The source told AlertNet that if necessary he and others would not mind using as escorts armed groups involved in the conflict, adding they had contacted armed groups to discuss this possibility.
“If no one intervenes because everyone is scared we risk getting into a catastrophic situation,” the source said on the phone from Bamako, Mali’s capital city.
“Most international organisations are not responding (to the humanitarian crisis) because of security reasons…,” he added. “…that is why it is absolutely necessary that a few (of us) take the risk to open up the humanitarian space.”
But for international aid groups bound by principles of independence and impartiality, securing access to communities must be based on humanitarian best practices that do not encourage the use of armed groups.
“I don’t see how armed escorts would make the situation safer for us in the north,” said Olivier Vandecasteele, head of the medical charity Medecins du Monde (MDM) in Mali.
“If you cannot gain your access based on your mandate and your work, then it is better not to go.”
He also said non-governmental organisations need to urgently redeploy their teams across Mali, adding MDM, which was also hit by the attacks in the north, is restarting work in the northern towns of Kidal and Gao where there is a high need for basic healthcare.
The way to obtain access is for aid groups to ensure that there is local acceptance due to the quality of their work and that the different groups fighting in the area understand that the aid groups are independent and impartial, Vandecasteele said.
Aid groups say the involvement of local militias and Islamist groups in what was initially a conflict between Malian forces and Tuareg-led rebels of the Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) has blurred the situation, making it harder to negotiate and secure humanitarian access.
“The problem is that we don’t really know who controls what and who is in charge of what,” said Jeurg Eglin, head of the regional delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for Mali and Niger.
“It is difficult for us to identify authorities and any kind of interlocutors that can guarantee us secure access and allow us (to) develop substantial activity,” he told me on the phone from Niamey, the capital of Niger.
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Picture Credit: A Malian family that fled unrest in the northeastern city Gao waits for transport after arriving by bus in the capital Bamako on April 11, 2012 REUTERS/Joe Penney