Bamako, Mali — With the fast-evolving military situation in Mali, the UN refugee agency is readying itself to assist in the possible spontaneous return of thousands of conflict-displaced people in the north of the country.
"We aim to open new presences in Gao and other cities in the north as soon as security conditions allow," said UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards, while noting that the presence of Islamist rebel troops and the resulting insecurity has hampered humanitarian access to the north.
From interviews with internally displaced people (IDP) over the past few days in the Mali capital, Bamako, it appears that many civilians are hoping to return to their home in areas formerly or still under rebel control, including Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal soon.
The process of spontaneous returns has already started in some places. In the central Mali town of Konna, for example, a UN security evaluation mission has confirmed that people are coming back. Up to half the town's population of 10,000 was earlier reported as having fled into the surrounding countryside when Konna was overrun on January 10, prompting the French military to intervene.
While the mood among IDPs may be shifting towards returns, conditions in the north of the country are difficult. People recently displaced from the north have reported serious shortages of food, clean water and fuel. Electricity, transport, communications, access to health and education is said to have been severely disrupted.
In Kidal and Tessalit, close to Algeria, the supply of food and other essential items has been seriously affected by the conflict and the closure of the border, across which many goods used to be imported.
Hundreds of people are reported to have fled Kidal in recent days to villages further north, even closer to the Algerian border. Others have crossed the border into Algeria, despite it being officially closed.
"Hundreds of people have reportedly settled in villages, such as Inhalid, located less than 20 kilometres from Algeria," said Zeinab, a representative in Bamako of displaced people from the Kidal and Tessalit regions. "Others have crossed into Algeria . . . Most are women and children and go to places such as Timayawen or Tinzawaten, where they rent homes," she added.
Zeinab is from Tessalit, fleeing the town in April 2012 when the Islamist rebels arrived. She has since returned a few times and explained that "when I return to Tessalit, I have to wear the veil." She said she kept in touch with friends and family there by cell phone. "People tell me that they are afraid of aerial bombing as well as possible reprisals from the Malian army and from the Islamists."
The conflict has affected the flow of goods from Algeria to Kidal and Tessalit, resulting in much higher prices for meat, milk and other goods. Zeinab also said she had heard that the rebels were recruiting child soldiers. "I saw children as young as 12 with them and even one eight-year-old," she claimed, adding that these children were usually stationed at checkpoints.
Zeinab also said education had been affected in Tessalit, where most teachers had fled. In Kidal, she said, some schools were reportedly functioning and providing Koran classes. "My friends who stayed in Tessalit report that many more early marriages have been taking place since the rebels took over," she said, adding: "My cousin's daughter got married to a 27-year-old Islamist rebel - she is nine."
Meanwhile, rising tension between ethnic communities has been reported in various parts of the country. In particular, members of the Tuareg and Arab communities are reportedly being blamed by other groups for supporting the separatist rebellion which led to the present conflict.
"UNHCR appeals to community leaders and to the Malian authorities to give urgent priority to initiatives to promote peace and reconciliation between various ethnic groups," said the refugee agency spokesman, Edwards.
UNHCR is urgently bringing into Mali relief items for 9,000 families (some 54,000 people), including sleeping mats, blankets, plastic tarpaulins, jerrycans, mosquito nets and cooking utensils. On Tuesday, a distribution of relief items is scheduled to start in the town of Mopti, which is home to an estimated 40,000 IDPs.
In total, an estimated 380,000 people have fled northern Mali since the start of the conflict a year ago, including 230,000 IDPs and more than 150,000 refugees in Mauritania, Niger, Burkina Faso and Algeria.
By Hélène Caux and William Spindler in Bamako, Mali