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Fleeing conflict in northern Mali

Many people will know Mali as an exotic tourist destination, with the annual ‘Festival in the Desert’ attracting music fans from around the world.

Recently, however, the music in northern Mali has fallen silent and tourism has all but disappeared. As various rebel groups have seized control of much of the north of the country, Malians have witnessed the harsh imposition of Sharia law and a strict interpretation of Islam that forbids music and has seen religious shrines in the world-famous Timbuktu desecrated.

Stonings and other brutal punishments are dealt out to those viewed not to be in full compliance with the rebels’ aims.

The human cost of conflict in Mali is growing by the day. Already, an estimated 450,000 people have fled their homes, seeking shelter in the south or in neighbouring countries – all this in a context of high levels of food insecurity across the region.


People load on onto a truck carrying residents fleeing northern Mali. REUTERS/Adama Diarra

People load on onto a truck carrying residents fleeing northern Mali. REUTERS/Adama Diarra


I visited Bamako, the capital city located in the very south of Mali, in August. The city’s population had swelled by almost 50,000 people who had fled their homes in the north.

I met with some of those who were displaced, many of them arriving into the city weak, distressed and with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They spoke of an arduous journey to Bamako, one that not everyone survived, and all were deeply affected by the situation.

Thankfully, the warmth of the Malian people has seen them welcomed in Bamako. It was moving to witness families open their homes and welcome in strangers fleeing from another part of this large country.

Many of these families were themselves poor, but what little they have they are willing to share. I met with one family who had opened their home to five other families – 54 people sharing what facilities they had. Needless to say, conditions were tough.

Trócaire, with a €340,000 grant from Irish Aid, is working with partners, including CRS, to help support families who have been forced to leave the north.

The situation in Bamako is very different to other incidents of large displacement. There are no big camps; most of those displaced from the north are being hosted by ordinary families around the city.

Trócaire’s response, too, is different. Rather than the in-kind forms of aid that we typically see in emergencies – large distributions of food, medicine, shelter materials or household goods – the aid being provided in this case is cash. Everything the people need is widely available in the city’s markets; what the people need is the ability to purchase the goods. This cash programme allows people who have fled from the north access to money to purchase goods locally.


An example of a card used by a person taking part in the cash distribution scheme

An example of a card used by a person taking part in the cash distribution scheme


The programme ensures that those arriving from the north do not become an unmanageable burden on the families who have taken them in.

It also gives people who have arrived in an unfamiliar city a sense of dignity; a sense that they are still in control of their lives and are not reliant on hand-outs. It allows them to decide what their greatest needs are and how they should meet those needs.

The amount of money that families receive is based on a calculation of living costs, as well as variables such as the amount of people per family. Cash is distributed each month and monitoring so far has shown that the cash is being used for essentials, like food, water, medicine and transport.

Without this programme, many of the families affected by the crisis would not be able to cope. They simply would not have enough food, and the crisis would escalate.

It was heartening to see the positive impact of this programme, not just on those who fled their homes but also on those families who opened their doors and shared what little they had with complete strangers.

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