Mali the survivors that want to be seen

In one of Mali’s most remote and isolated regions, a hidden humanitarian crisis receives little attention.

Ménaka is one of Mali’s ten regions. The region’s capital, Ménaka town, is lined with red mud brick buildings and intertwining roads bustling with donkey drawn carts and traders hawking grilled meat. The cacophony of sounds and the idyllic scenery in Ménaka town almost obscure the fact that this remote region of Mali is in the midst of a dire humanitarian crisis.

In 2012, an armed movement seized control of a significant portion of northern Mali. The instability that ensued led to the emergence of various non-state armed groups, and several violent attacks on civilian communities. Despite a 2015 peace agreement involving many of these armed groups, today many of them are still active, regularly clashing with Mali’s armed forces and often fighting amongst themselves. These clashes often lead to the displacement of large communities.

In March 2022, fresh rounds of fighting between non-state armed groups in Ménaka left villagers with no choice but to abandon their villages and seek the relative safety of Ménaka town. The arrival of newly displaced families in Ménaka is impossible to miss. Many families were welcomed into the homes of members of the host community, but other families, with no where else to go, have gathered in makeshift displacement sites scattered around the town.

The stories of the unheard

As the plight of Malians affected by this crisis is so poorly known and understood, we made arrangements with a local leader in Ménaka town to see if we could meet with some of these displaced families. We wanted to hear their stories and share them with the world.

Upon arrival at one of the makeshift displacement sites, dozens of curious onlookers gathered around. Some settled down on mats while others chose to remain standing. All were eager to participate in what turned out to be an impromptu forum to share their stories.

As the excitement grew, an elderly man encouraged the crowd to quiet down, and the loud, excited din transformed into quiet murmurs as the meeting began.

Almost all who were in attendance were men, but Todante Wallet Mohammed was one of the few women amongst their ranks. She chose a seat in a prominent place in the front of the group and spoke passionately about what she had faced.

Todante’s ordeal

“Right now the only thing we have is God and our children, we have nothing else,” said Todante.

It would be impossible to describe in words the loss Todante, 63, has experienced due to this conflict. She is a widow, and in the 10-year duration of this crisis, she has lost not only her husband to the violence, but also six out of her 10 children. Her four remaining children are with her in Ménaka town.

While in her village, Tamalet, around 150 km away from Ménaka town, Todante was the president of her community’s women’s group. She and the other women in this group would regularly contribute small amounts of money to a collective pot that she oversaw. The money was used to support the group’s members whenever they had any urgent and unforeseen needs. But in early March, during the violence that ultimately forced her and her children to flee, assailants burned down the site of the women’s group and stole 2 million CFA (approximately USD 3,200) in cash. They also destroyed items worth at least 1 million CFA and burned all their documents.

“We need assistance after having lost all of this. Because we can’t stay here without doing anything. We are in need of urgent assistance to feed our orphans, widows and those amongst us that are blind, as well as those who are poor and vulnerable.”

Amadou’s choice

Amadou Ag Bayewas also part of the crowd when Todante shared her story. After learning that he lived in a different displacement site, we arranged to meet with him the following day to also hear his story. As we entered the site, he pointed to a semi-secluded area and explained that the women there were widows and were collectively mourning the husbands they had lost in early March during the violence.

We walked a bit further and reached the part of the site where he and his family lived. It was a simple tent, with a roof made of cloth propped up on four wooden legs.

Amadou explained that after the attack in Tamalet, the choice of coming to Ménaka town was a strategic one.

“We decided to come to Ménaka because we wanted to have safety and security. But we also came here so that all the NGOs here can see us and know that we are here and that there are orphans, widows and people who left everything behind among us.”

Amadou understood that his plight was hidden and that in order to increase his chance of receiving assistance, he and his community needed to be seen first. His profound words emphasise why, in such a hidden and neglected crisis, those affected by the conflict need to be seen, and their voices and their stories need to be heard.

“Our most urgent need right now is food. The next need is education for our children, as well as income generating activities for us. Because with the work of our hands we will be able to provide for ourselves.”

A heartening local response

After Todante and Amadou arrived in Ménaka town, they received assistance from members of the host community. This assistance often came in the form of food or sleeping mats and cooking utensils. We spoke to Ayouba Ag Nadroune, a local community leader and asked him how members of the local community could be so generous when they themselves had so little to begin with.

“We contributed the little we have to be able to provide for the displaced families here. It was an easy choice for us because these are our kin. But the little we have shared with them is not enough. There are still so many needs.”

The assistance from members of the host community has gone a long way but it is not enough to meet the urgent needs. As we listen to the voices of those who are in need, the international humanitarian community must step up efforts to reach communities affected by the crisis in Mali and provide urgent assistance to those in need.

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