Last Saturday, French President Francois Hollande made his triumphant trip to Mali, greeted by Malians holding banners that read “Thank you France”. Hollande praised the French soldiers for their great efforts, but warned that “the fight is not over and it would be a mistake to think that with our Malian friends we have found means to secure the towns of Gao and Timbuktu and we should stop there”. Today, the French-led troops control both Timbuktu and Gao cities, previously the Islamist groups’ stronghold.
Despite his reassurance that France “does not have the intention of staying”, and the general agreement that the job has been done, few are jumping on the jubilant wagon.
Three weeks ago, when the French army launched an offensive against the Islamist armed groups in northern Mali, it instigated a backlash of international reactions from political analysts, media, Arabs and others. Everyone seemed to have an opinion. Everyone seemed to take a side, for or against the intervention. Today it is no different. The uncertainty about what comes next remains a point of contention.
This is by no means an attempt to present another political analysis of the intervention in Mali, but a reminder that while we are all busy presenting our thought-provoking, over-analytical, rigorous diagnosis of what is going on, innocent lives are lost.
The human rights violations committed before and during the intervention — from both sides — are not getting the attention they deserve. We are all busy presenting scenarios of what happens next and wondering if we have repeated another “Mission Accomplished”, but we have failed to fathom the depths of the humanitarian crisis.
Last Friday, Human Rights Watch said in a report, corroborated by other rights groups, that Malian and French troops had shot at least 13 suspected rebel supporters and dumped their bodies into wells. Also released last Thursday were initial findings from a research mission in Mali by Amnesty International, revealing horrific executions and disappearances of civilians, arbitrary arrests, beatings and ill-treatment.
More alarmingly, Human Rights Watch reported that children as young as 12 were taking part in the fighting and were being instructed to take positions in active combat zones and areas under aerial bombardment by the French. Child soldiers are very often killed or injured during combat and exposed to life-threatening situations when handling weapons or explosives.
According to recent reports by UNHCR, almost 150,000 Malians have sought refuge in neighbouring Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso since the crisis began. Inside Mali, around 229,000 people have fled from the northern regions, Kidal, Timbuktu and Gao. Other reports estimate that approximately 700,000 Malians will be forced to flee.
Mali is still among the 25 poorest countries in the world, experiencing droughts, rebellions and military coups over the past decades. The already impoverished population was finally attracting donor attention, following political stability and paving its way towards sustainable development when clashes between the armed rebels and government forces erupted this year. Hundreds of thousands of people in the north have been affected. The conflict exacerbated the already severe humanitarian condition of the people living in the Sahel region.
We seldom think of what it means to be at war; the trauma, neglect, malnutrition, rape, sex-trafficking, violence and death. In Mali, children and women are exposed to all forms of vulnerabilities and abuses. There are also reports that girls were being raped and sexually abused, and little was done to protect them.
The conflict in Mali has also forced schools to close down. Unicef reports that about 30,000 children have been affected by the closure of schools in unstable areas. These children have lost an entire year of schooling — a fundamental physical and psychological stabilising factor in a child’s life.
To make matters worse, donors, such as the European Union (EU), have suspended their development aid to Mali since the beginning of the coup in March and only recently have been gearing up to resume development cooperation.
Humanitarian organisations providing support to the northern regions have been unable to operate and forced to suspend their aid programmes. Access to these areas has been made worse by the proliferation of arms. Many International NGOs and UN agencies have also reported difficulty in providing the necessary support due to the logistical constraints imposed by the harsh climatic conditions. UNHCR explains that chronic drought resulting in worsened food insecurity and flooding, following the rainy seasons, as well as the high incidence of epidemics and poor infrastructure, add to the already dire situation.
Yes, a political discourse on a western country’s intervention in its former colony is expected, even healthy. However, our conversations must by employed to understand the intervention’s effect on the Malians as human beings, as victims of instability, as mothers, daughters and children. Occupy yourself on means and ways you can provide help to the hundreds of thousands who were forced to leave their homes, lands and most valuable possessions. We should all think about the thousands who barely have clean water to drink or food to feed their children.
The military offensive may have concluded, but the humanitarian crisis is far from over. For whatever purpose or gain anyone wants to steer the conversation towards, it is imperative, an exigency to remember that this involves people first.
Asma Malik is a development specialist. You can follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/AsmaIMalik