24/7/2013 – “I am worried about my parents. I’ve not spoken to them since we came here. They’re old. Travel is difficult for them so they stayed behind. My husband tells me they’re fine but I find it hard to believe. I would like to return but we have no money. My husband goes out every day to find work in town. If he finds some we eat, if he doesn’t we don’t,” says Assa with a grave expression while her daughter huddles up to her.
Assa shares a dilapidated room with her four children. Her husband, his second wife and their six children live in the room next door. She’s afraid to sleep after the first rains sent mud flowing down the walls. The wooden sticks that form the ceiling look dangerously bent as if they could collapse anytime. But they can’t afford to move to a safer place, they already owe two months’ rent as it is.
Funded by the EU, teams of Handicap International (HI) are on their daily round of visits in Sévaré, a garrison town on the crossroads between the country’s north and south, close to the town of Mopti. Some 40 000 Malians sought refuge here as conflict up north dislocated their lives. Sévaré itself nearly fell into the hands of non-state armed groups in January 2013 when fighters launched a bold offensive and advanced within 20 km of the town in an apparent effort to take control of its military airport. Fears of a ‘push through’ to the south were what triggered France’s military intervention on 11 January.
Six months later people in Sévaré seem to be going about their business except for many of the displaced families who feel stuck in a place that has shown them remarkable hospitality, yet isn’t home. With the onset of the rainy season the window of opportunity to cultivate their land in time for the harvest is slowly closing and with it comes the realisation that they may be dependent on aid for many more months to come.
When Assa’s family fled their village in the region of Douentza, with fighters on their heels, they didn’t take any belongings nor did they remember to bring identity papers. Their new neighbours gave them clothes, cooking utensils and a washbasin, but without papers they weren’t able to officially register as ‘internally displaced’ and are thus excluded from certain types of assistance.
The European Commission´s humanitarian aid and civil protection department (ECHO) funds Handicap International to seek out the most vulnerable families like Assa’s and connect them with services and actors in order to improve their housing situation and provide access to food assistance and health care. HI also helps individuals with physiotherapy or mental health needs. During the visit Assa mentions she has a belly ache. This could be a consequence of the unpurified water she drinks or a psychosomatic reaction to the stresses of her new living conditions.
HI’s psycho-social advisor Laetitia Rancillac has hired five mobile teams, each composed of a psychologist and a social worker, to identify people with specific needs. “It is common for people who’ve lived through armed conflict to experience troubles related to loss and mourning. They’ve lost their bearings, their property, their status; some have witnessed violence which can result in post-traumatic stress disorder,” Laetitia explains.
When one of HI’s psycho-social duos visits Fatoumata she complains about a humming in her head, as if continuously reliving the bombardments on the armed group’s base close to her home. Barely audible she recounts the events: “I was out at the river doing the laundry when the bombing started. Shells were flying over our heads. I saw a woman faint. After that, I couldn’t do anything for three days.” Fatoumata also recalls other events that made a profound impression on her, like when the neighbour’s boy picked up a grenade, threw it in the air and by doing so wounded his friend who, conscious of the impending danger, had started to run away.
She took her two children to her brother’s home in Sévaré while her husband stayed behind in Gao to take care of the house. “At first I felt a lot of anger, I felt violated. Now, I’m just sad,” she says listlessly casting her eyes down. Fatoumata’s brother seems happy with HI’s suggestion for her to join a group where she can discuss and share her feelings with people who’ve had similar experiences: “We don’t want her to go back like this. We want her to get better first.”
In Mopti, ECHO funds Handicap International to ensure the most vulnerable among the displaced people get the assistance they need. The organisation also provides help to people with mental health or physiotherapy needs and engages in explosive ordnance disposal.
By Anouk Delafortrie,
Regional Information Officer in Dakar