IDPs struggle to survive after escaping fighting in northern Mali

News Stories, 12 December 2012

© UNHCR/H. Caux
The man in the middle of this image with orange robes is hosting 18 internally displaced people at his home in Bamako. Many of those seeking shelter in the capital stay with relatives or friends.

BAMAKO, Mali, December 12 (UNHCR) Hidjaba is struggling to take care of her family like nearly 200,000 other Malians who have fled the north of their country to escape the fighting that erupted between various armed groups and government forces last January.

"I am ready to do anything to be able to buy food for my children," said the 45-year-old, who gets up at 6 a.m. to cook food that is both for her children to eat and to sell on the streets. "Sometimes they go to school in the morning with an empty stomach as I don't have enough money to buy millet to cook."

Hidjaba's family are among some 47,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) who have found refuge in Bamako. In total, 198,600 people have fled their homes and many of them have sought shelter in the capital and the areas of Segou, Kayes, Koulikoro, Sikasso and Mopti.

Their needs for money, food and shelter are huge. UNHCR has been providing non-food assistance for thousands of families in Mopti city, which hosts an estimated 40,000 internally displaced people (IDPs). However, so far UNHCR has received only US$71.5 million of the US$123.5 million it requested for this year to assist IDPs in Mali, as well as tens of thousands of Malian refugees in Burkina Faso, Niger and Mauritania.

"Donors are in general more reluctant to allocate funding to try to help populations who are dispersed in urban settings and hence are more difficult to track and assist than in camps," said Marie-Antoinette Okimba, UNHCR representative in Mali. "Still, these people need urgent assistance. We need more funding to provide adequate assistance and recruit qualified staff to be able to assist families in desperate situations."

Hidjaba and her seven children fled Gao last May, after the city fell to a Tuareg rebel movement, which was a month after it had been taken by the Ansar Dine Islamist rebel group. Her husband, a driver, was killed in an ambush while joining a self-defence group.

The loss of the main family earner and the insecurity caused Hidjaba and her children to flee to the capital, where many IDPs rent houses or stay with relatives. Hidjaba initially stayed with a friend, but is now renting a house without electricity or running water for about US$40 a month. Neighbours try to help and sometimes pay her to wash clothes.

Government charities and aid agencies such as the World Food Programme (WFP) regularly distribute food to vulnerable IDPs in the capital but there is no systematic scheme to ensure they get regular meals. However, additional assistance programmes for Bamako are being discussed.

A recent survey by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Malian Commission on Population Movement which includes UNHCR, other international and local aid agencies as well as the government found 58 per cent of displaced people in Bamako originated from the Timbuktu region, while a further 38 per cent came from the Gao region.

Since January, civilians have had to endure multiple waves of violence, with intense fighting as various groups successively took over the main cities in the north. Some civilians endured chaos and pillaging, some left in anticipation of fighting, others stayed hoping a unified Mali could survive.

Displacement is fluid and complex, with people who fled going back and forth to the north to check on their houses, fields or relatives. Many heads of families cannot afford to bring their wives and children to Bamako. Other families send children to stay with relatives in Bamako and continue their education.

Civilians continue to leave northern Mali because of new attacks. IDPs told UNHCR teams that rumours of an imminent intervention by a regional military force to restore government control of the north was another reason to flee.

For 53-year-old Mustapha the trigger to leave the Gao region was a visit by gunmen from Ansar Dine in August. They entered the imam's home and ordered him to join their movement. "I refused and they kidnapped me," he said. They threatened to kill him before leaving Mustapha on the edge of town. The following day he fled with his family to Bamako.

"The imam is the first person people listen to in a village or in a city. But I refused to transmit their ideology and to join them," he said. Once in Bamako, Mustapha, his two wives and eight children stayed for 40 days with a cousin until he took separate rooms.

"The displaced cannot stay forever at their families and at the same time they have reduced financial means to rent places," said Mamane, a Bamako resident who is hosting 18 IDPs. "I couldn't just let them go in the streets."

By Helene Caux in Bamako, Mali

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