The first convoy delivering food and medicines to rebel-occupied northern Mali just returned to the capital Bamako. Aid workers are looking to this and other aid missions for insights and logistical tips as they prepare future convoys to the region, where armed groups reign and tens of thousands of people need assistance.
Aid organizations looted
When Tuareg rebels and other armed groups seized Mali’s three main northern regions, the offices of aid groups were among countless buildings looted. U.N. agencies, the International Red Cross and many other groups suspended operations in Gao, Kidal and Timbuktu, just as people lost access to health services and food, and their needs skyrocketed.
Northern Mali - long a hub for armed groups profiting from smuggling and kidnappings - has for years been a challenging terrain for aid groups. Now, with Tuareg separatist rebels and Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine in control, aid agencies must navigate a complicated new environment.
One new challenge is some armed groups’ rejection of any aid coming in from outside Mali.
Three vehicles loaded with supplies and sent by the local organization Cri de Coeur returned from the north before dawn on Thursday. Assoumane Maïga is a founding member of the group. “We received the information from our contact people that Ansar Dine said there is no problem if you have any kind of aid you want to bring to the people, please do it. But the only issue is we don’t want you to bring something from international organizations - we only want [things] from Mali," he explained. "From Islamic people. During the trip they wanted to know the origin of every single item in the convoy - ‘Where did you get this from? Who gave you this?’ We had to explain.”
But Maïga said he doesn’t think this restriction can stand. He notes that supplies such as anti-retroviral drugs for AIDS patients must come from outside. “If we need ARVs - Mali doesn’t make ARVs. If we need to face some epidemic diseases or we want to support people who are already sick, Mali cannot do this without World Health Organization, without the International Red Cross, without the World Food Program.”
Foreign aid - rejected
For now, it is not clear how systematic the rejection of international supplies is among the groups controlling the north. Learning more about this is one of the aims of a Red Cross mission that left Bamako for Timbuktu on Wednesday.
Abdourahamane Cissé is president of the Malian Red Cross. He says the agency - through the work of its local volunteers - was able to get Tuareg rebels and Ansar Dine to accompany the convoy once it arrives in the north. He said this week’s mission has several objectives.
The mission, he says, is first a way to get a foothold and provide some emergency aid. But the team will also use the mission to evaluate needs on the ground - for now they don’t have a clear idea of the needs.
There has been much talk in the media about the need for humanitarian corridors in Mali. Laurent Dufour is Mali emergency coordinator with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. He said this is a bit of a misnomer as there is not intense fighting that is blocking vehicles from getting in. He said it is more a question of guaranteeing what aid officials call “humanitarian space."
“We don’t have a situation with a blockade or a geographically locked area. What we’re asking as humanitarian partners here to help the people of Mali whoever they are, wherever they are, is to be able to operate properly - to have a minimum guarantee of safety, a minimum guarantee that we can work according to the way we should work, the way we should be able to identify those most in need in an impartial way,” said Dufour.
A few agencies have continued to work in small local teams throughout and since the rebel takeover of the north, including Doctors of the World. Olivier Vandecasteele, the agency’s coordinator in Mali, says the situation highlights the importance of humanitarian principles.
He said humanitarian aid must comply with certain principles - including that the only objective must be the alleviation of suffering and protection of life, and that aid must be completely neutral with no political, military or economic objective. He said these principles must be understood and accepted by all parties to the conflict.