How the hunger happened
October 17th, 2012
11:00 AM ET
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Peter Biro is a writer and photographer for the International Rescue Committee. He reports on refugee and humanitarian issues in Southeast/Central Asia and Africa.

Tens of thousands of people have fled northern Mali as Islamist militants tighten their grip over the vast desert region. Those who remain face an increasingly desperate humanitarian situation with little access to food, clean water and medicine. The International Rescue Committee and international relief organizations, meanwhile, are struggling to deliver vital aid to suffering Malian civilians.

Over 450,000 people have fled the north since the Islamist takeover and another half-million people inside the country are in need of immediate assistance according to the United Nations and international aid organizations.

“The situation in the north of the country is becoming more and more alarming,” said Tasha Gill, who directs the IRC’s aid programs in Mali. “Basic services like health centers, water points and schools have stopped functioning. And although food can be found at the market now, many simply cannot afford to buy it. A perfect storm is brewing and thousands need humanitarian assistance.”

Mali has been in chaos since March when a coup toppled the country’s president, leaving a power vacuum that enabled nomadic Tuareg rebels to seize much of the north. Since then, radical Islamist factions have pushed out the Tuareg rebels and imposed a brutal application of Shariah law, including public beatings, amputations and stoning deaths. The political chaos erupted amidst an already mounting food crisis brought on by a severe drought.

Dicko Hamadoun, directs the IRC’s water and sanitation projects in Mali’s northern Gao region. “There is a huge need for health care and clean drinking water,” he says.

In the midst of these extraordinary conditions, the IRC, working with local Malian aid groups, has managed to deliver vital aid and support to some 80,000 people in the north, including clean drinking water, health care supplies and information, and counseling services for traumatized children.

Mali’s crisis has led to the collapse of many public services, especially health care and hospitals.

“There is a huge need for health care and clean drinking water,” said the IRC’s Dicko Hamadoun, who is directing water and sanitation projects in the northern Gao region. “To make matter worse, we have seen alarming outbreaks of cholera in areas around the Niger river, which many villages depend on for drinking water.”

In response, the IRC has trained 125 local volunteers to distribute health and cholera prevention messages in villages throughout the north, along with soap, water purification tablets and other vital supplies. The IRC even managed to convince local authorities to allow it to broadcast health and disease prevention messages on the radio. As a result of these initiatives, the number of new cases of cholera has begun to decline, Hamadoun said.

The IRC, along with its Malian aid partner, GREFFA, is also working to reopen schools which have been shuttered since the crisis began, and to provide services to vulnerable young people, including play and support groups for displaced children.

Abdoulaye Alassane runs the IRC’s education programs in the Gao region.

“Many teachers fled after the Islamists took over,” said Abdoulaye Alassane, who runs the IRC’s education programs in the Gao region. “The Islamists have banned music and dance. Girls have been prohibited from participating in sports or outdoor activities.”

The closing of schools has left many children on their own and easy prey for exploitation, making it even more urgent to offer children alternative educational programs and activities. Child recruitment is a major concern.

People who have fled the north say the armed groups have little support among the population but worry whether they will ever be able to return home or see normalcy restored.

“I don’t know how long we must stay here, but we cannot return until the situation changes,” said Fatumata Touré (pictured above), who has taken refuge in a relative’s house in a suburb of Bamako, the Malian capital.

“When we left there was a lot of fighting between different groups and no one dared leave their houses,” Touré said. “There was looting in the streets. We are afraid and we don’t support what is happening now.”

“The people of the north feel like they have been abandoned,” said Dicko Hamadoun. “Until the situation changes or is resolved, the IRC is determined keep working the best it can. The region needs all the help and attention it can get.”

Previously - Crisis in Mali and Bringing a child back from malnutrition

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Filed under: Disaster • Drought • Environment • Food Politics • Hunger • News • Water • World Food Day

soundoff (11 Responses)
  1. Caitlyn

    Obama is stupid...........

    October 18, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  2. jute

    Twisting a humanitarian issue into political statement to suit your ideological leaning is dishonest and wrong. Each individual makes their choice whether to care or not for the oppressed. Your heart is revealed by own words.

    October 18, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  3. Steve

    Thanks for writing this informative article. The strong, caring faces of the Malians are indicative of the people of North Africa. And thank you for your work.

    October 18, 2012 at 1:34 am |
  4. Keith

    It's not my job.

    October 17, 2012 at 10:09 pm |
  5. history bear

    Let their muslim buddies in the oil rich countries bail them out. THey are not the responsibility of the West and until they cut thier birthrate severely and begin working on living within the constraints of their enviroment, i'm not inclined to help at at all. They are the root cause of their own problems

    October 17, 2012 at 5:23 pm |
  6. Elephant Stommp

    It seems like the Republican party has taken over Northern Mali. Health CAre – you are on your own.
    Job creation – openings as women concubines and children soldiers. Glass ceiling above being more than cannon fodder.
    Religous Freedom – all religious morals are law, you are free to leave if you don't like them. Abortion – available during village raids, don't expect woman or fetus to survive. But new fetuses will be planted as a reminder to follow the faith of the righteous.
    Trickle down economics – goes for food and water.
    Economy – those with the gold make the rules.
    Taxes – everyone has a flat tax, if one can't pay with cash then a pound or two of flesh is acceptable.

    October 17, 2012 at 12:56 pm |
    • Walter

      Spin away little libby, spin away. If you're so gung ho to help them, take your money and send it over to them.

      October 17, 2012 at 1:40 pm |
    • Striker6

      What you talking about, sam shady? The US, with Obama himself taking the lead is planning to send troops to this part of the world to fight the terrorists toe to toe. Rebuglicans, if there ain't any profit, if there ain't any oil, well then, they'll have no need to get involved with anything involving humanity.

      October 17, 2012 at 2:44 pm |
      • norm

        Well good for the Republicans then. It's about time we stopped trying to be the world's peacekeeper, especially since we don't appear to be very good at it.

        October 17, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
      • Tom

        Sure let's lose more Ameican lives in fllithy muslim holes, thy're always so grateful for the help they demand.

        October 17, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Tom

      Sad to be so dumb.

      October 17, 2012 at 6:39 pm |
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