The United Nations Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Sahel, David Gressly, says humanitarian aid has been moving very quickly in northern Mali since the French military rout of Islamic rebels that began January 11.
According to Gressly, some 30,000 people have been displaced by the current intervention and most have fled as refugees into neighboring Mauritania. He says the situation has calmed down in the north and aid agencies now have access into central Mali, where the U.N is preparing to use the city of Mopti as a logistical base.
Gressly says the World Food Program started moving food into the north two days ago, and other supplies also are being sent north to Timbuktu.
“We’re concerned about the population in the north at this point because they have been cut off. We did not stockpile huge amounts of supplies in the north prior to this, partly because of fears of pillaging and so forth," he said. "It is important that we get early access to northern Mali. There are approximately 5,000,000 people in northern Mali that are food insecure that need this assistance, so we are working now to make that a reality.”
Besides humanitarian assistance, Gressly says protection of civilians is of great concern. He refers to allegations of human rights abuses against civilians in the north by the rebels and also reportedly by Malian security forces. He says human rights monitors must be put on the ground quickly so they can check on the validity of these allegations.
Gressly says the crisis in northern Mali is compounded by a broad, chronic crisis throughout the country and across the Sahel region of western and central Africa. He says the United Nations projects that 10 million people across the Sahel will be short of food this year, including two million in Mali. In addition, he says, about one million children are expected to be malnourished, with 200,000 cases of acute malnutrition in Mali alone.
Gressly says a political solution that makes all residents feel part of a common Malian state is necessary to avoid a repeat of the humanitarian crisis.
“It is important that all citizens feel that they have equal part in that Malian state if that territorial integrity is not to be challenged again," he said. "Secondly, the fact that we have such high rates of malnutrition and food insecurity indicates a development problem in the country. This is not exclusively or even primarily in the north. It effects probably the south. Eighty percent of those needs are actually in the south. So, there is a need for an equitable development approach that deals with these underlying problems in a systematic way - north and south - if we are to see our way out of the repeated crisis that we see in Mali.”
Gressly says he is not predicting that the situation in northern Mali will get worse, but that the humanitarian community must be prepared for further attacks in the north and future difficulties in delivering aid.
He says everyone will have to wait and see how things evolve and be prepared to adapt to new realities as situations change.