The fact that so much has changed in Mali since I was here last month only goes to prove what an unstable world it is. Admittedly, the warning signals were there back in December and by the time I boarded the plane at Bamako to fly back to Europe I grew more and more concerned that we weren’t preparing sufficiently for the hard times to come.
The French military intervention, following an appeal by the Malian government, came after Islamist militant groups launched an offensive southwards, threatening to march on the capital. These forces, as I write, are now being pushed back north beyond the towns they held briefly.
Nobody can predict how this will end but my thoughts are with the ordinary Malians – including 660,000 malnourished children under five – who now are suffering the consequences of what amounts to a triple disaster. It began with a food crisis, after recurrent drought and crops failure, then a coup in Bamako and a conflict in the north have made life for millions very harsh. More than 360,000 people fled their homes, of whom 150,000 crossed the borders of neighboring Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.
What will happen next in humanitarian terms is hard to predict. So far not many people have fled the war zone – some 6,000-8,000 – which we might consider not too alarming given the total numbers of refugees and internally displaced before the new military offensive. But those who have fled tell us that more are certain to follow, and prices of food and fuel are shooting up – a sign that needs may soon go up as well.
But what alarms me even more is that even if needs may not have significantly increased yet, our ability to provide assistance has been significantly eroded. Many of our partner organisations performing vital humanitarian work in the north of Mali tell me it is becoming more and more difficult to work there. The army now requires permissions for going into the north and with a military offensive in hand giving those permissions is not a top priority.
This is why in my meetings with the government I stressed the urgency which now exists to protect – and enlarge – the humanitarian space by giving expediting permissions for NGOs to travel and work in the north. I also underlined the need to protect civilian lives. While hard evidence has yet to emerge, I heard worrying reports of what might be described as reprisal or revenge violence – mainly against the “lighter-skinned” Touareg and Arab population of the north. It is now time to prevent this from happening – by training the Malian army in international humanitarian law, a task the EU training team is ready to perform.
The future is very uncertain for Mali. But uncertainty also means a chance – a new course towards political settlement of all the thorny issues from Mali’s past and the establishment of a more inclusive system of governance for this ethnically very diverse country. All of us have a role to play to support Mali. For us in the humanitarian community it is to care for and protect its most vulnerable people.