Malians in the northern towns of Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu are hiding in their homes in fear following the weekend takeover by rebel groups, during which hospitals, health clinics, government buildings, and most NGO and UN offices and warehouses were looted, and in some cases destroyed, leaving the bulk of humanitarian operations suspended.
After decades of failed Tuareg secessionist rebellions, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) has suddenly taken over most of northern Mali – with significant help from the Islamist group Ansar Dine – a barreling advance that culminated in the capture of Timbuktu on 1 April.
Issa Mahamar Touré, president of the youth association in Gao, said total chaos reigned after widespread looting of government offices, NGOs, banks and hospitals in his town. “People are hiding at their homes unable to leave…no trucks are arriving with further supplies…what will we do when our stocks run out? The hospital is closed and doctors have fled…It is complete desolation, despair…We can only turn to the international community for help.”
Ansar Dine has claimed control of Timbuktu where they say they will impose Islamic sharia law, banning alcohol as well as Western clothes and music. Several residents told IRIN they wanted them out.
“We are against this takeover,” said Amouhani Touré, a teacher who had just fled the town. “These Islamists want to impose their rules on us…we’re in the 21st century, you can’t impose sharia [law] on peaceful citizens. The authorities, if we have any still, must fight these Islamists with all their might…Timbuktu is a holy site, a tourist town; UNESCO-protected, we will say no to all forms of separatism.”
An under-equipped and demoralized Malian military put up little resistance against the northern rebels, despite a promise by Captain Amadou Sanogo, who led a coup ousting President Amadou Toumani Touré on 22 March, that a reinvigorated army would fight back.
Humanitarian operations suspended
Julia McDade, head of the Malian office of Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), told IRIN: “Everyone [in Gao] is in hiding, everyone’s vehicles have been stolen…every single office has been ransacked.” The NGO works with partners on agriculture projects and women’s rights in Timbuktu and Gao.
All the aid agencies IRIN spoke to have had their equipment stolen and have been forced to suspend operations, in the middle of a food emergency. Offices of the World Food Programme (WFP), which provides the bulk of food aid in the north were looted, and the organization has halted its activities in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, as well as the central town of Mopti, according to its head, Nancy Walters.
Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Oxfam, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) all repeated the same story. “Our cars, aid materials, offices and staff residences – were all looted [in Gao],” Jurg Eglin, head of ICRC for Niger and Mali told IRIN. “We are still trying to take stock of what we have lost.”
Ultimately by looting, the rebels have further punished the drought-hit region, said McDade. “Their relatives are dying in the field, and now we can’t do the paperwork required to distribute the food…the rebels have hurt themselves,” she said, adding they are trying to set up systems with WFP to re-start food distributions once security is clearer.
This puts an already slow emergency response – because of months of conflict, complications related to increasing numbers of displaced, and sluggish donor funding – in further jeopardy, warned the agency heads. “We were already late on the food insecurity response, and now things will be even slower,” said McDade.
ICRC has been able to carry out only one major food distribution in Kidal over recent months. Some three million Malians are estimated by the UN to be at risk of hunger this year.
Aid workers need to create some sort of “humanitarian space” in order to operate, but negotiating this is near-impossible at the moment as the situation is changing by the hour, said ICRC’s Eglin. “You speak to one person and the next day someone else gives a different answer. It’s a mess.”
Reports of rape
While the rebel takeovers were for the most part free of widespread civilian killings, according to the ICRC, several sources – one of them a staff-member with NCA -reported that rapes have taken place in Timbuktu, while others reported incidents of rape in Gao.
An NGO trainer in Gao, Adama Konipo, told IRIN he had seen rebels taking women away from the health centre, “to who knows where”, in recent days. After seeing one young woman in tears in the street, family members told him she had been raped by five MNLA soldiers. Others reported two rebels raping a young woman in the market place, firing their guns when anyone dared to approach them.
“It is impossible for any young women to leave their houses for fear,” Konipo told IRIN.
“The MNLA is supposed to be liberating its people – not raping them. Ansar Dine are supposed to be religiously correct…some kind of moral law must be applied here,” said NCA’s McDade, adding more investigations are needed to confirm these reports.
Many now fear that Mopti – the southernmost town in northern Mali – will be the next to be targeted by the rebel groups, with UN security statements reporting rebel movements in the northernmost parts of Mopti region, and reports of rebel activities in Hombori, Youwarou and Tenen Kou.
A number of agencies, including CRS, are already shutting down their offices in Mopti and sending staff to the capital, Bamako.
The degree of vandalism that took place has people worried about such opportunism spreading, said McDade. “There are opportunists here –not just rebels – and what if they said look, we can do the same thing in the south?”
Meanwhile, on 2 April, Mali’s neighbours agreed to shut their borders as part of tough sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which has also imposed trade and financial embargoes, as part of a set of measures to persuade the military junta to restore constitutional law.
Coup leader Sanogo has confirmed the junta is ready to discuss a transition of power, but has not set any dates.
Some banks are already running out of cash. Government staff will not be paid from April once sanctions take hold, said Moumini Kamaté, an agent at the national Budget Office, who added that some of the tax offices in Bamako were pillaged in the coup. “If liquidity runs out, the economy will grind to a halt,” he told IRIN.
This could mean government services collapsing, as well as a complete lack of direction on the humanitarian response, said Stephen Cockburn, West Africa advocacy adviser at Oxfam.
The looting of some 16 ministries means administrative services have largely stopped already, according to Lamissa Bengaly, Secretary General for the Ministry of Energy and Water, who told IRIN most of their office equipment was looted within 62-hours of the coup. “We can’t do anything because we don’t have any of our work materials. In reality, administrative services have more or less stopped.”
Some aid agencies such as Oxfam are negotiating deals with their banks to set aside minimum cash flows.
Bamako-based hospitals are generally continuing to function, while schools were on break when the coup occurred so were not directly hit, said Adama Waigalo, adviser at the Education Ministry, though he is worried they will not be able to re-open following the Easter break.
The trade embargo and border closures are already causing shortages, and prices – high to begin with – are rising further still, say traders.
A kilo of rice in Bamako is US$1 versus US 60 cents last week; a litre of oil is $2.40 rather than $2 pre-coup, according to market-seller Ousmane Traoré, who says he has no choice but to up prices as his goods are stuck on the Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire borders and cannot be sold.
Long queues of cars cluster around most petrol stations, with pump prices shooting up over the past week to $5 a litre from the official price of $1.20.
Border closures will also affect the movement of people, and “another coping mechanism will be lost”, Cockburn told IRIN.