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February 28, 2012

Conflict in Mali Aggravates Sahel Food Crisis

by Anne Look

The Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali has pushed tens of thousands of people across the border into Niger.  The refugee crisis has intensified a looming food crisis in the region.

Djibril Oualid and his family, from Mali, have joined 2,000 other refugees across the border with Niger in the village, Gaoudel. They fled the Tuareg rebellion in the northern part of their country. Many are living in makeshift camps along the border, with little food or water. Most say they have lost everything in the conflict.

Human tragedy

The Oualid family walked for three days to reach the border.

"Our country is destroyed," said Djibril Oualid. "The rebels are taking everything from us. I came here with my wife and children because they took everything we had. We don't have anything anymore, nothing at all."

Separatist Tuareg fighters started attacking army bases in Mali's desert in January. They are renewing a decades-old independence fight bolstered by weapons and fighters fresh from the war in Libya.

The United Nations refugee agency says the conflict has uprooted 130,000 people in and around Mali. Around 25,000 of them have crossed the border into Niger.

Refugee crisis exacerbates shortages

Boris Michel of the International Committee of the Red Cross says the refugee crisis is deepening existing food shortages in the area.

"In Mali and Niger, we face a double situation," he said. "The first one is linked to renewed insurgencies and fighting in Northern Mali where thousands of people had to flee and the second is linked to a food crisis that is affecting the whole Sahel belt where people are lacking food, have lost their crops because of a lack of rain and where cattle has no fodder to survive."  

ICRC says the majority of the refugees are concentrated in the Tillabery region of northern Niger, one of the areas hardest hit by the food crisis.

The ICRC is calling for an additional $13.4 million  to provide food, supplies and medical care to 700,000 people throughout northern Mali and Niger.

10 million possibly at risk

The U.N. World Program says severe food shortages threaten 10 million people across the Sahel region this year, including more than five million in Niger, alone.

For now, border villages, like Gaoudel, are sharing what they have with the refugees.

"Even us, we don't have anything either. It's been two years since we had a good crop and this problem comes. But luckily I thank God that recently we've received a lot of help," he said.

The U.N. Refugee Agency there has distributed water kits, cooking utensils, soap and mosquito nets - provisions meant to hold the 2,000 refugees until a new camp opens further from the border in coming weeks.