Bamako — Displaced Malians who have recently returned to their homes in the north of the country say they are facing economic difficulty as their businesses, livestock and other forms of livelihood have been wiped out, while those still displaced also say financial assistance is their main need.
The conflict in northern Mali following the 2012 overthrow of the government in Bamako and an Islamist occupation forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee for safety in the south or in neighbouring countries. More than a year since a French-led intervention dislodged the Islamist insurgents, northern residents have been gradually returning home, but are facing hardship in rebuilding their lives.
Some 196,000 people have gone back to the north, mainly to Timbuktu and Gao, since June 2013, says the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The government has also helped some to return home, organizing boat and bus convoys; each returning family has been given food supplies to last three months.
Bakary Doumbia, IOM chief of mission in Mali, explained that the current large numbers of returnees was not anticipated by many and that there was a need to ramp up assistance to help them rebuild their lives.
"If we don't reorient our efforts to the north, there's a risk that those who have returned may leave once more. We fear for a second displacement," Doumbia told IRN, noting that in 2012 and 2013, donors focused more on southern Mali as access to the north was difficult.
Most of the returnees have lost all their means of livelihood, with many returning empty-handed to damaged homes and shattered lives.
"All their needs are priority... They are starting afresh; furniture, utensils, water and electricity connections and so on, while they also have to resume their economic and social life," said Mamaoutou Thiam, a technical adviser at the Trade, Social and Humanitarian Affairs Ministry.
The conflict disrupted northern Mali's economy: As traders fled, markets were starved of supplies; banks and other public services came to a standstill; property was destroyed, and food prices rose significantly.
"It is very difficult for the economy of the northern region to pick up while emerging from the kind of crisis it suffered. All was lost, businesses were looted, banks ransacked, transport paralysed. In short the economy was annihilated," said Mamadou Sidibé, a government economist.
"The government has taken steps to rebuild public administration. Banks are slowly reopening... the displaced are trickling back, traders are waiting for better security. The economic resumption is not going to happen tomorrow," he said.
The government in July 2013 launched an initiative to encourage civil servants to return to the north, offering them US$500 grant for transport and resettlement in a bid to revive public services.
Adama Maiga, a resident of Gao and tailor who recently returned from Bamako, said: "I need a second sewing machine, but I don't have the money. I continue to ask well-wishers, the local authority, NGOs who promised to help, but I have received nothing so far. I just depend on the little I sell - women's and children's clothes. This is what I'm trying to rebuild bit by bit."
However, Gao Mayor Sadou Diallo, said there were small signs of economic recovery, and the local authorities were working on ways to lure back the population and businesses.
"There is a slight improvement... We launched a huge sensitization campaign for residents and traders to return. We have even scrapped some taxes and levies to spur business and encourage traders. We have also appealed for the banks to return," Diallo told IRIN.
Trading licenses have been suspended until the tax and revenue collection department resumes operations. Levies for stall and shop owners have also been abolished, said Diallo.
In Timbuktu, fish trader Hama Diombana recounted the difficulties he is facing in reviving his business which folded after he fled to Bamako.
"I have been trying in vain to restart the business. The value chain has been broken. I've been going round in circles for the past eight months. I wanted to borrow money from the bank, but I am being asked for a guarantee. What can I do?" asked Diombana, explaining that he recently borrowed 500,000 francs (US$1,000) from another trader, but he needs 3-5 million francs to resuscitate the business.
Economic hardship in the north is prompting some people to leave for the south, according to IOM. More than 1,000 families moved to the south in December 2013, most citing financial problems linked to the conflict. Other motives were food insecurity or joining family members already in the south.
A recent IOM survey indicated that nearly half of displaced people said they needed money for food, transport and other basic requirements. Around a quarter said food was their priority and just under 10 percent needed shelter. Some 200,000 Malians are still displaced and around 150,000 others have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
IOM's Doumbia rued the lack of donor support. "There is a lot of work to be done, [but] donors haven't shown great enthusiasm."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]