FASSALA, Mauritania (February 12, 2013) — As conflict rages in northern Mali, thousands of people caught up in the fighting are struggling to survive, trying to escape hardship and reach more secure areas. Many remain stranded.
Others, like Alia, have escaped. It's a journey of fear, destination uncertain. One long week after she and her three young children had set out from Timbuktu to Fassala, Mauritania, the telltale contractions and cramps in Alia’s swollen belly marked early labor. As the first Fassala dwellings emerged from the desert mirages, Alia gave birth to her fourth child.
In the beginning of 2012, as the Sahel region grappled with a nutrition crisis, rebellion erupted in northern Mali. In March, the rebellion had captured the three northern regions of Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. The situation remained relatively calm until the end of 2012, when Islamist groups seized power from the secular rebel group Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (MNLA).
On December 20, the United Nations Security Council authorized an African force (AFISMA) to help Malian authorities, with an additional mandate to ensure security for humanitarian assistance and the voluntary return of displaced persons. Shortly after, rebel groups launched another offensive, capturing the town of Konna on January 10. The Government of Mali subsequently requested immediate military assistance from France.
As thousands of people flee the conflict, UNICEF, in coordination with UNHCR and other partners, has been working to accommodate those people who have crossed the country’s borders, the majority of whom are children and women.
According to UNHCR, up to 64,805 refugees, including more than 10,000 new arrivals, are receiving services in M’Berra camp, Mauritania. Children’s needs include food security, protection, nutrition, education, healthcare, water, sanitation and hygiene, and education.
“We are stepping up and expanding our interventions to meet the growing humanitarian needs for refugee children and host communities in the aftermath of the military operation in North Mali,’’ says UNICEF Representative in Mauritania Lucia Elmi.
When they arrived in Fassala, Alia and her family went to the health center for medical screening and to receive measles vaccinations. The center was set up by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs with support from UNHCR and Médecins sans Frontières, with vaccines and essential supplies procured by UNICEF.
The family were then transported to the transit center, where they enjoyed their first respite since their flight from Timbuktu. From there, they were moved to M’Berra camp, where they were integrated into the existing services and structure. After 12 months in the camp, Alia’s son Habibi stands strong, having fully recovered from severe acute malnutrition.
At M’Berra camp, along with nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene services, children benefit from education and child-friendly spaces, restoring the sense of normalcy.
“I visited the camp for the first time a year ago, and every time I go there, I am deeply moved by the incredible resilience of these families to cope with adversities. Children playing football … with sand and a couple of stones as goal posts. Girls returning to their tents after school, carrying, with immense joy, their books and pencils,” says Elmi.
While UNICEF and partners are striving to address the new influx of refugees and to make sure the needs of both refugees and host communities are met, major challenges hamper the response. As the number of children in Mauritania swells, more resources are needed to allow education and other services to meet ever-increasing demand.
And, with the situation in Mali unclear, it might be some time before the refugees can return to their country. UNICEF, in coordination with UNHCR, government and other partners, has to be ready to continue providing services as long as the need exists. Amid overlapping emergencies and simmering ethnic and political tensions, the fate of the children of Mali depends on continuing strong commitment to their survival.