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Mali: After months of violence, the promise of peace in Niono
In the last year or so the Ségou region of Mali, not far from the Mauritanian border, has been in the news but not for any reason inhabitants would want – attacks on villages, and armed groups and the military fighting for territory and control. Every day, Malians have borne the brunt of the violence, which has affected them physically and psychologically, and has impacted their livelihoods. In mid-March, a peace agreement was signed between the armed groups, and since then hope is in the air that the ceasefire will last, and that people will be able to go back to their lives.
Violence spiralled out of control
From October 2020, violence spiralled out of control through an endless series of reprisal attacks in the northern areas of Niono district.
By December 2020, more than 8,000 people had left the villages of Farabougou et Dogofry and were sheltering in various areas, including Sokolo town.
Farabougou, home to more than 3,000 inhabitants, had been placed under siege by armed factions.
Some of the new arrivals in Sokolo took shelter in the homes of people they knew, others in the grounds of the town hall, the school and in makeshift camps.
Most arrived with nothing and are still struggling today to access adequate food and shelter
Sokolo was already facing a water shortage before the new arrivals, and now inhabitants are concerned that there isn’t enough of anything to go around.
“We couldn’t bring any of our possessions with us: our animals, our food and our clothes are all still in the village. We didn’t have time to grab them because we were terrified for our lives."
"Our rice fields have been destroyed, pillaged or burnt. The village is completely empty, there’s not even a chicken.”
MSF response in Sokolo
MSF started running a mobile clinic in November, and over the last few months the teams have been present on the site on a weekly basis.
Most people are suffering from respiratory infections and malaria, but also the stress and anxiety linked to their living conditions is having a significant impact on their mental health.
No-one knows how long they will be there
And then there is the trauma of what people have seen and what they have experienced:
“My husband was away, and I was alone with my children during a time when violence broke out around my village. One night I wanted to escape with my children, but armed men came to my house and raped me. I was five months pregnant."
"My children and I fled here to Sokolo … Two nights after we arrived, I lost my baby.”
In search of safety
Despite having come to Sokolo in search of safety, people do not feel at ease.
“The townspeople do their best to protect us, but we are worried, particularly at night. Everyone here is on tenterhooks and ready to run away at a moment’s notice.”
Armed men have been said to come to the camps and threaten people, saying that next time even the babies won’t be spared
Since the MSF clinic started, staff have undertaken over 3,000 outpatient consultations and 5,600 individual and group mental health sessions.
And yet sometimes the clinic cannot run due to insecurity on the roads.
The violence in the area has reduced the amount of humanitarian assistance available to people in need.
“In a context like this, negotiating access with all the different groups engaged in the fighting is vital to ensure we can keep treating all those who need it”, says François Talla, the Field Coordinator for the project.
“Providing assistance in the areas around Sokolo shows just how important it is to separate medical humanitarian aid from any form of political agenda or allegiance, in order to ensure safe access to people.”
To assure continued care for the displaced and the host community, MSF made the decision recently taken to replace the mobile clinics with direct support to the Sokolo health centre.
Waiting for peace
Further south, in Niono, where MSF has been working since 2019, the increased violence can also be felt.
Between November 2020 and March 2021, 56 people with gunshot wounds have been treated at the referral hospital
This permeation of violence that has seeped into new areas of the country has not destroyed people’s resilience though.
In the words of one of our patients, “We only want to be helped until peace returns and we can go back to our normal lives in the villages.”
Let’s hope the March agreements can make this a reality.