Unrest and uncertainty are continuing in the West African state of Mali, as rebel separatist forces have taken control of the northern desert region. Interim civilian power has been restored in the capital, Bamako, after last month’s military coup, but Mali’s political future is still unclear. Violence in the north continues and many thousands of people are still fleeing their homes – either to move further south or to cross the borders into neighboring countries. CRS remains committed to serve the people of Mali and to continue its relief and development work there.
Timothy Bishop, CRS country representative in Mali has stayed at his post in Bamako throughout the crisis. He talked to us about the reopening of one of CRS’ offices and how CRS is leading the way in providing help for those displaced by the violence.
Two weeks ago CRS’ office in Mopti was temporarily closed. Why has it now re-opened?
We closed the Mopti office due to a strong threat of rebel attack on the town. We temporarily closed the office—relocating staff, equipment, and food to safe locations—one day after rebels took control of Mali’s northern regions. At the time, it was clear they could move further south, into Mopti region, at any moment. Since then, the Mali army has reinforced its positions in Mopti, and we feel more confident basing staff and resources there. Closing the office severely hampered our ability to deliver emergency assistance to people who’d fled their homes, what we call internally displaced people (IDPs), and other needy populations. Reopening the office is a relief to us all, even though the risk of attack is not entirely gone.
How would you describe the general situation in Mali now? How are people feeling?
People in Mali are both frightened and anxious. Those in the north fear the rebels could continue south. In the event they do not, the Malian army will at some point try to recapture the northern regions, raising the possibility of a large-scale war. People in Bamako, meanwhile, fear political volatility, as the military junta transitions back to a civilian government.
How is it affecting the work of CRS? How are the staff?
Following the coup d’état (which destabilized Bamako) and the rebel advance (which destabilized the north), all CRS programs were halted for about ten days. CRS’ programs are now back up and running nationwide, except in the three northern regions. CRS staff remain highly motivated, as we all realize that in times of crisis, CRS and our partners are more important than ever.
Can you explain the IDP problem?
The rebels, composed of at least seven distinct groups, attacked military camps in Mali’s three northern towns: first Kidal, then Tomboctou and Gao nearly simultaneously. After chasing out the Malian army, the rebels systematically looted government facilities in each town, before looting NGOs offices. During the violence, tens of thousands of Malians fled the urban centers. More continue to flee each day. There are large numbers of IDPs (who become refugees when they cross international borders) in Niger, Burkina Faso, Mauritania, and central/southern Mali. Total estimates exceed 200,000 people.
What is CRS doing to help IDPs?
Last week, CRS was appointed lead agency for IDP food assistance in Mopti, the largest transit site for IDPs moving from the northern regions further south. CRS is leading an inter-agency IDP assessment team in Mopti and has started food distributions. We are also looking to see what non-food items IDPs need, for instance cooking utensils, tents, blankets, sleeping mats, and mosquito nets.
Have you come across any family’s story that stuck out for you?
Not so far amongst the IDPs, but yes, amongst some CRS staff I have. We have three staff whose families hail from the north. They have reported in some parts of the country receiving looks of hostility from normally warm, welcoming southerners. Clearly the rebels are both creating and exploiting a racial divide between the north and the south.
What are your hopes for the immediate future for Mali?
If Mali can return to a civilian government, its international assistance will be restored (many donors suspended help after the coup d’état). The assistance is critical both for long-term development programs and for strengthening the Malian military, so it can fight back against the rebels in the north. We all hope for political progress now. It’s also imperative that all donor countries push for humanitarian access in the three northern regions, so aid can circulate freely there. Not only can we not get any significant resources into those areas, we’re unable to evaluate the extent of the humanitarian crisis there.
For more information, please contact Helen Blakesley.