International Medical Corps’ Mali Emergency Response Team reached the ancient desert city of Timbuktu on February 1, after it was retaken from Islamist rebels by the French and Malian armies on January 29. It took over a week to reach Timbuktu from the Malian capital of Bamako— a journey that proved to be one of the most challenging trips our seasoned humanitarian team has ever faced.
International Medical Corps was on the ground in Mali on January 22, 11 days after French military operations began to push back rebels aiming to take over the country. The French army advanced quickly from the beginning of its operations, taking back the towns of Konna and Douentza in the first days of military action and then quickly moving on to Hombouri before reaching the northern towns of Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal. Fighting was intense early on, as evidenced by burnt-out tanks and unexploded rockets lining the roads in and around Konna, but French and Malian advances into Gao, Timbuktu and Kidal have seen little resistance. These major cities of the north are now being held by French, Malian and regional military forces, and life is slowly returning to normal for the residents who did not flee during the conflict.
International Medical Corps was among the first humanitarian organizations to gain access to the conflict-affected areas of the country, reaching the town of Konna on January 27, Douentza on January 31 and finally arriving in Timbuktu on February 1. Along the way, our emergency response team had to negotiate through military checkpoints, drive and push our vehicles across deep desert sand dunes, and cross the Niger River on a ferry moving under the power of a small motorized canoe. Our team spent a week driving back and forth across the middle of the country, desperately trying to gain access to any road to reach the north. We were repeatedly turned back by military checkpoints— learning that certain routes had become impassable because of sunken ferries or land mines on the roads—and warned against travel on several routes because militants were still present in the area.
When International Medical Corps reached Konna, the site of one of the first major battles of the conflict, we conducted an emergency needs assessment that has served to illustrate the needs of people who have been living in and around the area with limited access to the rest of the country and severely restricted supply chains to ensure access to food, medicines and other essential goods. Next, we conducted a humanitarian assessment in Douentza, which was held by rebels from the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad from April-June 2012, and then taken over by Islamist rebels from June 2012 until the French and Malian operations of January 2013. Many of Douentza’s leaders fled south to Bamako and other cities out of fear of violence, and are only now beginning to return. For months, residents of Douentza have not been able to farm or trade, while the market provided only limited supplies of essential goods.
On February 2, we started our emergency assessment to identify priority humanitarian needs in Timbuktu. Initial reports indicate that some government clinics have been looted and destroyed, personnel have fled out of fear, and there is a lack of basic food commodities in the town. Our emergency team’s evaluation will focus on the most urgent needs and provide the humanitarian community in Mali and abroad with the information necessary to respond as access to Timbuktu improves in the coming weeks. Our team will conduct household-level needs assessments, organize focus groups with community leaders, and visit local health clinics to identify which are functioning and what additional support might be needed.
It is essential for International Medical Corps and other humanitarian actors to respond quickly in order to meet the most urgent needs in Timbuktu and other areas of Mali that have been cut off for weeks and months. Our emergency team has been able to quickly assess what the most pressing needs are and position ourselves to begin responding to them. Over the coming weeks, it will be critical that donors, humanitarian agencies and the Government of Mali come together to ensure that we meet basic needs, rebuild destroyed infrastructure, and support additional priorities that arise with the anticipated return of the hundreds of thousands of displaced Malians within Mali and neighboring countries.