In central Mali, MSF staff bunkers down, clamoring for access

A Tuareg man holding a weapon in Mali, in a photo taken on Dec. 5, 2012. Photo by: Magharebia / CC BY 2.0

The day after it called for military leaders to unblock access to crucial roads in central Mali, the majority of Médecins Sans Frontières’s staff remained on lockdown, unable to provide medical care and services to those in need.

“Most of our staff have bunkered up in the hospitals and unfortunately few people are coming in. People are afraid to go there,” said Christopher Strokes, general director of the Brussels branch of the humanitarian aid group, in a phone interview with Devex on Friday. “Many people are not leaving their houses.”

MSF is one of only a few international organization operating in Konna, a small commune in central Mali that had been taken over by Islamist militants early in the week but recaptured by the Malian army after a series of French airstrikes. Konna also lies on the edge of Mali’s northern desert, near the battleground frontlines of Mopti, Timbuktu and Gao - and near Douentza, another small community French and Malian forces retook on Monday, Jan. 21.

The Geneva-based organization is not pulling out of Mali, where it is working alongside the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

“That is not the idea,” Strokes said. “There are very few international organizations in northern Mali and patrolled areas.”

Yet he said that the conditions are becoming more and more challenging for his colleagues.

“It’s one thing to talk about working in a war zone, but it’s very difficult for the staff to remain there if there are problems with supply and they see the generators are beginning to stop,” he said. “Which is why we want to be able to move some of the needs from the south, but we are being prevented from doing so by the Malian army.”

While the political conflict in Mali, driven by a coup by Islamic rebel forces against the government, has been intensifying since last year, it’s only been since last week that MSF health workers and doctors haven’t been able to cross the Konna barrier, Strokes said.

That’s when the French military began launching bomb strikes against the rebels in Mali. It deployed 1,400 soldiers on the ground on Wednesday, and is now being supported by incoming West African regional forces.

“This is a wall without pictures and without images,” Strokes said of Konna. “Already journalists are banned from going there and it must not become a wall without international humanitarian aid workers.”

Along Konna, dividing the country into two, all transport of aid goods has now halted, Strokes said Friday.

“Trucks aren’t going in anyway. In some parts it is completely empty and in others you have reduced traffic,” he explained. “It is problematic also for getting information, in areas where the mobile phone networks are not working.”

MSF’s lack of access to conflict-affected regions of Mali, and Malians’ inability to reach health clinics, is making it difficult to create a clear vision of the situation on the ground for the Malian population, Stroke noted.

“Nobody is in a position to give a general overview of what is happening,” he noted. “That’s why I come back to this idea that if we are prevented from reaching this area, it’s one thing to have a war, with pictures and images, but it’s another thing to have it without humanitarian assistance.”

On Thursday, the United Nations refugee agency approved the deployment of dozens of specialists to assist in refugee camps in Burkina’s Sahel region. The reinforcement will support the expected additional displacement of up to 300,000 people inside Mali and 407,000 in neighboring countries.

Since last year, about 147,000 Malians have been driven as refugees into Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso, Algeria, Guinea and Togo. An additional 229,000 people are reportedly internally displaced by the violence in Mali. The United Nations’ $370 million appeal for Mali this year may be revised — if necessary — to account for this growing needs, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Friday (Jan. 18).

To care for them — and for the many others affected by the ongoing military and humanitarian crisis in Mali — aid workers from MSF and other groups continue to clamor for unfettered access. On Friday, UNICEF also called on all armed forces in Mali to stop recruiting child soldiers — and release any child under the age of 18.

Meanwhile, West African leaders and France discussed how to speed up the deployment of African troops in the country during an emergency summit Friday, and at further meetings over the weekend. ECOWAS has committed 5,800 troops, Chad 3,000 and Nigeria 1,200.

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About the author

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    Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is an award-winning journalist based in New York City. Her coverage on politics, social justice issues, development and climate change has appeared in a variety of international news outlets, including The Guardian, Slate and The Atlantic. She has reported from the U.N. Headquarters, in addition to nine countries outside of the U.S. Amy received her master of arts degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May 2014. Last year she completed a yearlong fellowship on the oil industry and climate change and co-published her findings with a team in the Los Angeles Times.