Dakar — Relief groups are considering resuming or expanding their operations in northern Mali after French and Malian troops took key towns from militant Islamists who controlled the region for nine months.
Insecurity in the north during this period disrupted and restricted aid operations and also prevented free movement of the local population.
"The problem of access was double-edged. Many people who were being treated for malnutrition could not get to the health centres while health workers could not reach them. The main roads were blocked," said Lucile Grosjean, the emergency communication coordinator for Action Against Hunger (ACF).
"The situation is still fluid. We have to wait and see how it evolves. Just a month ago Gao [northeastern town] was under the control of MUJAO [Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa]," Grosjean told IRIN. MUJAO was one of three Islamist and Al-Qaeda-linked militant groups that seized swathes of territory in Mali's north.
ACF, which runs nutrition and health programmes in northern Mali, continued operations throughout the period of Islamist rule, but only in the main towns and had to suspend field operations by mobile medical teams, Grosjean said, adding that the priority now was to "expand our programme around Gao".
Islamist fighters looted World Food Programme (WFP) warehouses, forcing the closure of offices and the withdrawal of staff. WFP, which has since been working through NGO partners in the north, is slowly resuming operations there, said Zlatan Milisic, WFP country director for Mali.
"The year 2013 represents a shift in our activities from a combined drought-and-conflict emergency response of last year to one focusing mainly on the consequences of the conflict in the north," Milisic told IRIN.
"As soon as the barges that operate on River Niger started going north from Mopti, we started planning for resumption of activities," he said, explaining that WFP has since late January shipped some 600 tons of food for around 35,000 people to the Timbuktu area.
WFP plans to triple the amount of food sent to the north and open a transport route between Niamey, the capital of neighbouring Niger, and Gao, Milisic said.
The occupation of northern Mali worsened the plight of residents there (previously hit by serious food shortages and drought in 2011-2012). The recent military offensive that has seen many food traders, mainly Arabs or Tuaregs, flee after reprisal attacks, has caused food and fuel price hikes, Oxfam said in a statement.
Markets are running out of stocks after looting, and food prices have now risen by almost 20 percent in Gao since the Franco-Malian armed intervention began on 11 January, Oxfam added. Money is also getting scarce in Gao Region, where banks have been closed for several months, and cash supplies from the capital Bamako are dwindling due to restricted movement, ACF said.
"There is a huge food security problem which adds to the [insecurity] during the last nine months. Fields were not sufficiently cultivated and the harvest was low," Grosjean explained.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which also maintained operations in the north during the Islamist occupation, said access to some areas still remained off-limits to aid groups.
"We cannot travel to certain places as the situation is still uncertain. Like everybody else, we are waiting," said Julie Damond, MSF's regional communications officer.
However, in central Mali, humanitarian access is improving.
"The north is still pretty much closed off. There is a very small presence of some NGOs in the north. Access... is blocked because it's still considered a military zone," said Sean Gallagher, the resident representative of Catholic Relief Services, which is currently operating in central and southern Mali.
"People [aid groups] are anxious to get up there to assess the situation and help those who are suffering. They are anxious but at the same time there are security issues," Gallagher said. "There is a lot of hope too after the forces rapidly took those areas which were under the militants and are now securing them. It gives hope that access will come soon. We are mulling moving to Gao, but the decision will be based on access."
The recent fighting has displaced nearly 10,000 people who have sought refuge in Bamako and the central towns of Ségou and Mopti. Some 15,000 others have been forced to flee to neighbouring countries.
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]