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Column: Irish troops are heading to Mali – what will they find there?

Irish troops will go to Mali next month, where approximately 375,000 people have been displaced due to internal conflict. The immense humanitarian fallout of the situation must not be overlooked, writes Emilia Sorrentino.

Emilia Sorrentino

With Irish soldiers destined for Mali, the tragic human cost the conflict is having must not be overlooked. Since the fighting began, approximately 375,000 people have been displaced, 250,000 internally within Mali with the remainder fleeing to neighbouring countries Niger and Burkina Faso and others. Plan is responding to the crisis on the ground in these three countries.

Plan Ireland’s, Disaster Management Officer, Emilia Sorrentino is currently in the region.

“THEY CRY IN their sleep and complain about nightmares” said Fatima, referring to her little nephews and nieces.

Traumatised and displaced by the conflict, people like Fatima are struggling to cope with their changed circumstances, particularly looking after children who have been deeply affected by events of recent months.

Fatima recalls vividly the day when this all started. In June 2012, she was walking through the streets of Timbuktu, a town on the southern edge of the Sahara desert in Northern Mali, the intellectual and spiritual capital of Africa since the 15th and 16th centuries. The town had been under the control of armed insurgents since April 2012.

“Kept hostage for several hours”

She stopped to say hello to a male friend who was walking in her direction. She was spotted and seized by the rebels. They accused her of talking to a “stranger”. They pulled her by the hair and then started beating her. She tried to reason and plead, but in vain. The beating continued and they put a gun to her head. “I was terrified”, she recalls with fear in her eyes. She was then kept as a ‘hostage’ for several hours. She is not sure when she fell unconscious.

When she woke up, they released her and she ran home. She and her six sisters fled Timbuktu the same night — along with the 13 other children in the family. They headed for the relative safety of the southern Malian city of Segou.

Life for her family has since changed forever. “When two big elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers,” goes the African proverb

The fighting in Mali has left 375,000 people like Fatima displaced, uprooted and traumatised. They are the human face – but also the hidden face of this conflict. With Irish soldiers scheduled to be dispatched to Mali as part of an EU training force, it’s time to but the spotlight back on the human fallout.

Food insecurity

Exacerbating Mali’s plight is the serious food crisis the country suffered in 2012. It is estimated that 585,000 people in the north are now food insecure, and more than 1.2 million across the country are at risk of food shortages. The ongoing conflict is set to amplify this.

Plan emergency teams are providing vital aid to internally displaced people within Mali and refugees in Niger and Burkina Faso. In Mali, Plan is distributing food, providing school kits, delivering lessons to pupils, as well as psychological support and protection for children.

In the refugee camps of Niger and Burkina Faso, the focus is on providing water sanitation programmes, school buildings and education programmes.

However, there is an urgent need to scale up humanitarian assistance. So, while it may be the daring tales of French Commando raids and pitched battled with armed militia which have grabbed the headlines, it’s the plight of ordinary people which is really the most noteworthy.

“Fear children and adolescents could end up being recruited by armed gangs”

“In the remote Mentao refugee camp in Northern Burkina Faso, I’ve just visited 15 classrooms which Plan is constructing to ensure quality access to education and child friendly spaces for 3,000 children,” explains Emilia Sorrentino, Plan Ireland Emergency Response Officer.

It’s so encouraging to see children and adolescents being able to engage in activities which people of their age are supposed to. Among the young people I have met are two Malians called Zikra and Abdarhaman. They arrived in the camp a year ago after the insurgents drove them out of their homes in Northern Mali.

With Plan’s help they are both carrying out community-based work engaging with refugee children helping to cultivate a child friendly environment. “It is crucial that children and young people have these secure settings to learn and prosper,” they tell me.

“Without this sanctuary, there is a fear throughout the camp that due to hopelessness and apathy young people could end up being recruited by armed groups.”

While Abdarhaman regrets that due to the volatility of the situation in his home country he is unlikely to be able to return to Mali anytime soon, he is keen to continue with his studies. Just before I left the camp he told me that his applied for a course in the college in Burkina Faso’s capital-and he’s just been accepted. The enthusiasm and optimism of people like Abdarhaman show that Mali’s future does not have to be a forlorn one.

Plan has been operating in Mali since 1976, helping poor children to access their rights to health, education, protection and livelihoods. Over 350 children in Mali are sponsored by Irish people.

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Plan Ireland has launched a Mali appeal, to help support it visit:

Emilia Sorrentino has a background in Education in Emergencies and Psycho-social support. She has spent the last four years in Gaza and the West Bank, where she worked as Programme Manager and later as Country Director for an Italian NGO. Emilia has also worked as Country Director and as a consultant on education projects/programmes in Egypt with Sudanese refugees, she has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka (during the Tsunami Emergency Response) and FYROM (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).

Explainer: What is happening in Mali?

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Emilia Sorrentino

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