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“The sound of gunfire woke us up,” said Mr Mahmouda, who fled his village in Mali after it came under attack from rebels. “Although we were not directly threatened, we were scared. We took all we could carry and fled in the direction of Niger,” he told Caritas Niger.
Some 120,000 people have been forced out of their homes in Mali as conflict flares in three out of eight provinces. The fighting comes as the Sahel region of West Africa faces a food crisis predicted to leave more than 10 million people hungry this year.
A small number of Tuareg-led rebels re-ignited their rebellion last month. Bolstered by fighters and weapons spilling out of last year’s conflict in Libya, the rebels, known as the MNLA, have launched a series of attacks against military outposts. The government, which also faces elections and the food crisis, is struggling to respond.
More than 60,000 people have fled into Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Algeria. A similar number have been forced from their homes but remain in Mali. CRS Mali Country Representative Timothy Bishop says he’s very worried. He says in Mali almost all of the 60,000 people displaced by the fighting cannot be reached. “People are fleeing the fighting to areas already affected by food shortages,” he said. “Insecurity means international agencies cannot reach them with aid.”
Bishop says 60,000 is a lot of people, but it’s a manageable number if aid agencies can get through. He hopes Caritas local networks in Mali will be able to reach them or that the government will consider a humanitarian corridor.
In Niger, at least 500 Malian refugees are crossing into the country each day. They arrive exhausted by the long walks to Chinagoden, Mangaizé, Abala and Ayorou, villages close to the border. Many are in bad shape. There they receive some aid, clean water and food from the Niger government, aid agencies and local people.
“All these people hope the fighting will stop,” said Fatchima Karimoun of Caritas Niger (known nationally as CADEV). “They want to return to their homes and their daily lives. But they are also touched by the generosity of people who themselves are struggling to feed even themselves in this time of shortages.”
The influx of refugees is putting huge pressure on dwindling resources. In Sinégodar village, its usual population of 2000 must cope with an influx of 8000 people. Conditions are difficult. People are using water normally reserved for animals. There is little shelter and extreme heat during the day and cold at night.
“When you speak with the refugees, you can see they feel powerless,” said CRS’s Ali Abdoulaye, Deputy Country Representative for Niger. “They never imagined they would be forced from their homes. They’re searching for some hope”.
CRS, Caritas Niger and other Caritas members are working to provide clean water and support communities with livelihood programmes such as cash-for-work on the land and market farms. A meeting of the Caritas Working Group on the Sahel in Bamako in February has planned the wider humanitarian response to the crisis.
Sources: OCHA, CRS, CADEV