For many people, Timbuktu has long represented the essence of remoteness: a mythical, faraway place located on the boundaries of our collective consciousness. But like many of the myths associated with colonialism, the reality is very different.
Medieval texts show that Timbuktu has stood for centuries as a centre of Islamic culture and learning, at the juncture of trade routes spanning thousands of miles across the Sahara, north to Morocco and Europe, east to Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula. For Ali Farka Touré, the legendary musician who fused Malian traditions with the blues, Timbuktu -- his birthplace -- was the "heart of the world."
The multiple crises unfolding in and around Mali today are shaped by an intersection of trends that resonate far beyond the region: food insecurity and desertification linked to climate change, incomplete democratization processes marked by social exclusion, and a growing population of young people with poor employment prospects.
With its government debilitated by a coup, the Malian political system -- previously an acclaimed example of democratic progress in the region -- has been unable to maintain its reach into its northern regions, now characterized by trafficking in small arms, narcotics, migrants and hostages.
The north of the country is under the control of militant, foreign-sponsored radical Islamist movements, the latest dangerous permutation in a century-long series of Tuareg rebellions. Reports of human rights abuses are mounting daily.
As if this were not enough, the region is in the grip of a major food crisis. More than 18 million people across the Sahel are already affected by or at risk of acute food shortages.
Mali now matters more than ever. And it matters for two reasons. First, the country is not the isolated place of myth that the Timbuktu legend implies. Political crisis and state fragmentation in Mali are a significant threat to political stability in the region, where bordering states such as Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire are still struggling to emerge from recent crises.
There are worrying signals that the radical militant presence in northern Mali is already drawing in disaffected youths from elsewhere in the region. And the fact that a crisis of this nature has taken root so rapidly in what appeared to be a stable democracy has significant implications extending far beyond Mali's borders.
If unchecked, the Mali crisis threatens to create an arc of instability extending west into Mauritania and east through Niger, Chad and Sudan to the Horn of Africa and the Gulf of Aden, characterized by extended spaces where state authority is weak and pockets of territorial control are exercised by transnational criminals. The activities of Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden could soon find a parallel in the arid lands of the southern Sahara.
It is imperative that an early resolution to this crisis is reached, and that international support is provided to those national and regional actors who are working to secure a political settlement and to deal with the complex security issues that have emerged in the country.
Second, the combination of conflict and political instability in Mali and the food crisis now taking root across the Sahel have already had acute humanitarian consequences. More than 266,000 refugees have fled Mali since January, mainly to Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria. Around 174,000 people are displaced within Mali.
The abrupt displacement of so many people has had profound consequences for their welfare, and aid agencies are struggling to meet their basic needs in areas that are affected by insecurity and characterized by acute logistical challenges. Cholera outbreaks have already occurred in northern Mali, and people continue to flee, placing a huge strain on local resources.
Following earlier visits to Niger and Mauritania, I recently travelled to Burkina Faso. There, I met refugees who had just fled Mali, their very means of survival destroyed in the conflict and their faces marked with the strain and fear of the dispossessed. Their needs are acute -- food, water, sanitation and basic health care.
For the women I met, their first priority was to hold on to what little capacity they had to take care of themselves and their families, and to restore a sense of normality amidst the brutal disruption of their lives. This will become even more difficult when the dry season hits and animal stocks dwindle. Their courage and their resilience were profoundly moving.
We must expand the humanitarian response to this crisis, and not allow it to slip off an international agenda that has been completely preoccupied by events in Syria.
We must ensure that refuge is provided to those people who need it, that uprooted populations do not become targets for exploitation, manipulation and recruitment by armed groups, and that their capacity to remain economically active is maintained. We cannot remain indifferent to their plight. Without an adequate humanitarian response that allows people to live safely, with dignity, and with a vision of a future, disaffection and despair can themselves become factors in the perpetuation of conflict.
Without an early political resolution of the crisis, there is a real risk that many of these people will be condemned to a future of protracted displacement and deprivation, just as has happened with millions of refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. There is also a risk that the conflict will spread, becoming a threat to regional -- and even global -- peace and security.
We cannot allow this to happen. Mali's crisis is already affecting many thousands of lives across a vast geographic area. To ignore such peril is foolish.
Guterres, a former prime minister of Portugal, is the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees