Bamako — A missionary priest in Mali ministering to displaced people has described their desperate struggle to flee fighting and Islamist extremism as violence intensifies in key parts of the country.
In a message sent to Aid to the Church in Need, Fr Zacharie Sorgho described the events that led to the liberation of the strategically important town of Diabaly on Thursday January 18.
Fr Sorgho, whose parish of Nioro du Sahel in north-west Mali has welcomed people fleeing the conflict, said: "One morning, there was an armed assault [by Islamist rebels] in the city of Konna... and other southern cities. This created a great fear in the city and everyone was in a state of confusion. People were fleeing and there were cries of despair."
Fr Sorgho praised the intervention of French troops who were crucial to the liberation of the city. "After intense fighting, Konna was freed from the hands of the jihadist Muslims. But then they attacked the town of Diabaly and took it. They used people as human shields."
The priest related how Islamists had confiscated mobile phones, preventing people from communicating with the outside world, and mingled with residents, stopping the French and Malian soldiers from conducting targeted strikes against them.
"After intense fighting, the city of Diabaly was retaken by French and Malian soldiers. Everyone is rejoicing."
Describing the background of the conflict, he said: "For a long time rebel groups in northern Mali imposed their laws and spread terror among the northern people by amputating hands, giving strokes of the lash, committing sexual violence against women and girls, and so forth.
"The misery was great and the media spoke about the situation every day, but nothing was done at either national or international level. Rebel groups and Islamists thought they were already victors and masters of the country. They really want to impose laws and apply Shari'a throughout the country."
It is estimated that up to 400,000 people have fled from northern Mali or other conflict areas.
Fr Sorgho said: "We have welcomed those displaced by the war. Many people had already fled - following the attacks of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal - and they had found refuge in our area on the border of Mauritania and Senegal. So far a number of families have welcomed these refugees as guests and helped them. But, with multiple air strikes and armed interventions, we are seeing many more people coming to us. They are taking their children and parents and fleeing the conflict in the north. Many have come to us with nothing - except a backpack containing a few personal items."
In 2011 Aid to the Church in Need gave more than £135,000 (€160,000) to help projects in Mali and is preparing to send emergency help for refugees in the Diocese of Mopti, in the centre of the country, where thousands of displaced persons have gathered.