More than 136,000 people, including nearly 74,000 children, are trapped in the city of Timbuktu in northern Mali, with armed groups preventing the entry of food, medicines and other essential supplies, Save the Children said.
The siege of the historic city, which started in August, has led to a worsening humanitarian catastrophe, with only limited food allowed in. The UN estimates that while at least 33,000 people have been displaced around Timbuktu since the crisis began, the rate of people fleeing has slowed down in recent months, following violent attacks on displaced people. In one particularly violent episode in September, 49 civilians were killed on a boat while trying to escape the besieged city.
Save the Children has had to reduce its number of staff in Timbuktu in response to the worsening security situation, and is now working to maintain services while the siege deepens. With official aid routes completely cut off, supplies are dwindling and the agency fears the remaining services in the city may need to end soon if a resolution of the crisis isn't found.
With the harvest season about to end in December, much of the population has missed the vital opportunity to sell crops, leaving them vulnerable to extreme hunger and poverty in the coming months. The blockade has already caused food prices to increase almost tenfold, making it even more difficult for families to access the basics. For several years, Mali and the wider Sahel region have been experiencing escalating food insecurity due to drought, as one of the world's most vulnerable places to the impacts of the climate crisis.
Even before the blockade, children in Timbuktu were living in fear of violent attacks and kidnapping by armed groups. Now, Save the Children has heard of reports of children being separated from their families, recruited by armed groups, and being killed or maimed by improvised explosive devices.
Siaka Ouattara, Save the Children's Country Director for Mali, said:
"The situation in Timbuktu is unlike anything we've seen in the past years. While children in the north of Mali sadly regularly experience displacement and violent attacks – many several times a year – it's rare for them to be fully blockaded in a town, trapped with dwindling supplies. Thousands of children have passed months now without any access to health services, and the risk of illness increases with each passing day.
"Children in Timbuktu are distressed, scared, and dream of a life where they can stay in their villages and play. With every day the blockade continues, children are getting hungrier, more stressed, and more fearful.
"These children want nothing more than to live in peace, play with their friends and go to school, and to share a balanced meal with their families. The ongoing blockade is preventing them from doing all of these. We call on all actors to end the blockade, and to ensure that civilians can move safely in and out of the city, and essential aid supplies can reach families and children in need."
Save the Children is responding to the situation in Timbuktu through two long-standing programmes which were established before the blockade. Save the Children supports communities cash transfers against malnutrition, shock response, and cash for work activities. However, while activities are still ongoing, it has become increasingly difficult to reach certain areas and impact of the programmes has been impacted because of the blockade.