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Mali’s Refugees From Northern War Pressure Families

Mali’s Flood of Refugees From Northern War Presses Families
An estimated 230,000 people have been displaced within Mali since the crisis began and 150,000 in neighboring countries, according to the UN. Photographer: Ahmed Ouoba/AFP/Getty Images

Abdou Maiga was sent four teenagers at first, then five more when it became clear that schools in the rebel-controlled Malian city of Timbuktu weren’t going to reopen. Two months ago, he convinced his parents to join the northerners fleeing to the south.

Timbuktu is in control of Islamists, less than two weeks after the start of French airstrikes on insurgent-held towns in Mali. That prompted at least 7,500 people to flee their homes, the United Nations Refugee Agency said yesterday. The Malian and French armies have reclaimed three towns and halted a rebel advance toward Bamako, the capital. The U.S. is providing France airlift support and intelligence, the Pentagon said yesterday.

“My relatives arrived in waves,” Maiga said in an interview in Bamako, swatting away a mosquito as a gaggle of children watched television in the living room. “In our culture, you don’t refuse hospitality. It’s simply not done.”

His family are part of a growing refugee crisis, as thousands have left their homes to seek shelter within Mali and in neighboring nations including Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso, according to the United Nations. The flood of people is putting pressure on families in one of the world’s poorest countries.

Maiga and his wife are feeding members of their extended family who left the north when rebels overran the area in April. In Timbuktu, the fighters ransacked clinics, schools and banks in a bid to impose a strict version of Shariah law, destroying part of the fabled desert city’s infrastructure.

Medical Treatment

Maiga, who works for a transportation company, spends all of his 500,000 CFA-franc ($1,010) monthly salary on making sure his relatives are being fed and going to school. He rented a separate apartment for his parents after his two-bedroom home became crowded.

“My father initially refused to leave Timbuktu, but he couldn’t get the regular medical treatment he needs,” he said. “I’m also paying school fees for the kids, clothes, food, you name it.”

An estimated 230,000 people have been displaced within Mali since the crisis began and 150,000 in neighboring countries, according to the UN. Many have been taken in by relatives, in keeping with traditions like Maiga’s that homes are always open to family.

French Airstrikes

“My savings are gone,” said 48-year Abdallah Adiawiakoye, who took in his brother’s family last year. “I used to take my two daughters to the zoo on weekends, but that’s not possible anymore. I’ve got too many mouths to feed. I stopped planning for the future. We’re all living hand to mouth.”

Internal refugees have devised systems to get money back home, including an informal cash-transfer network among traders, Maiga said. That helps to keep power turned on from 5 p.m to 11 p.m., he said.

Mali ranks 175th out of 187 nations on the UN Human Development Index, which measures indicators including literacy, income and gender equality. Its $10.6 billion economy contracted 4.5 percent last year as the occupation of the north disrupted agricultural output and led to a virtual collapse of tourism as Islamists expanded their control to popular sites in the historic Dogon country, according to the International Monetary Fund.

The economy is forecast to expand 3 percent in 2013, partly because gold mining hasn’t been affected by the conflict, the IMF said on Nov. 14. Mali vies with Tanzania as Africa’s third-largest producer of the metal, with AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. and Randgold Resources Ltd. among the companies operating in the country.

Aid Agencies

The crisis in Mali may spill over into North and West Africa if the situation isn’t contained and terrorist groups are profiting from crime in the north, Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland today.

Humanitarian groups are struggling to meet the basic needs of Malian refugees, according to U.K.-based Oxfam. Local non-governmental organizations are planning to distribute food supplies to displaced people in Bamako, Remi Dourlot, public information officer of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said by phone from the city on Jan. 21.

“Aid agencies estimated at the beginning of the month that they need $370 million for Mali this year,” he said. “The call to donors went out before the French military campaign began. So far, we have received $2.8 million.”

Even with the efforts he made to help his family, Adiawiakoye said he still feels that he’s failed. “I tried to convince a sister in Timbuktu to send me her 14-year-old son, who was the best of his class. She hesitated because he was her favorite son,” he said.

The boy died of malaria about a month after the Islamists occupied the city, Adiawiakoye said. With clinics shut, the child was unable to access health care and if he had been in Bamako, he might have been saved, according to Adiawiakoye. “I still feel sad about it. I can’t shake the thought that I didn’t try hard enough.”

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