As the conflict in northern Mali intensifies, civilians must be protected and humanitarian organizations need better access to the nearly 230,000 people who fled fighting near their homes for safer regions of the country.
Over the last 12 months, armed Islamic groups have taken control of much of northern Mali, effectively cutting the country in two. Malian and French armed forces launched a military intervention in early January, causing Handicap International to temporarily suspend its activities in the region. The organization has since resumed its operations in the central city of Mopti.
Handicap International teams are assessing the needs of the displaced people who have gathered around Mopti. “We will distribute humanitarian aid according to people's needs and do our best to ensure the most vulnerable receive adequate protection,” says Grégory Doucet, Handicap International's West Africa desk officer. Such aid can include tents, plastic sheets, mattresses, soap, buckets, cooking kits and school supplies for displaced children.
Civilians exposed to weapons and explosive remnants of war
Since the start of the conflict, Mali has been flooded with weapons, many brought from Libya after that country's revolution. These weapons pose an imminent threat to civilians, who are frequently victims of stray bullets as well as landmines and other explosive devices left behind by combatants.
“Fighters have stashed some weapons away, sometimes simply in earthenware jars or in rivers, or often they just dump them on the move,” says Sylvie Bouko, Handicap International's specialist in reducing armed violence. “We're afraid there will be a significant increase in the number of civilians who are wounded after coming into contact with these weapons.”
Thus far, 50 civilians, including 31 children, have been injured by landmines or explosive remnants of war such as grenades and unexploded shells. On January 16, Handicap International resumed its program (originally launched in October 2012) to educate civilians about the risks posed by these weapons.
“We need to act now before people currently displaced in the interior of Mali return to their homes and find themselves confronted, on their homeward journey, with dangerous arms and explosive devices,” says Marc Vaernewyck, Handicap International's field program director in Mali.
“The basic rule is don't touch suspicious objects, keep your distance, mark the potentially dangerous area, and alert others of the risk,” says Bouko. “We teach people to share our safety messages with their communities and ask them to alert us to the presence of dangerous devices. It's also vital to secure the affected areas that the displaced population will return to. We're hoping to start mine clearance operations (which includes identifying and neutralizing explosive remnants of war, including landmines, missiles, grenades, and unexploded munitions) as soon as possible.”
Once it becomes possible to safely operate in the north, Handicap International hopes to quickly address the needs those who were not physically able to leave the region during the fighting, such as people with disabilities and the sick and injured. “The situation facing the most vulnerable people there is very worrying,” says Doucet.