Diary of an aid worker: The lost boys and girls of Mali
Today is unlike any other day. I am in Mali talking to families who fled the violence in the latest armed conflict to rock the West African region. In recent weeks, I have watched Mali grab headlines as government and French troops launch a military campaign against armed opposition groups.
Reportedly enforcing a strict interpretation of Sharia law, these groups had been occupying Mali’s northern provinces since last year. As I read the news, I shake my head – not another war. At a certain point, I go numb from reading stories about the military intervention. But I carry on with my day.
I am in San province working for the charity World Vision which is responding to the needs of displaced people who came in exodus from the north. I am face to face with Malian refugees who shake my hand and look me in the eye as they share their stories. Suddenly the statistics on TV have a human face.
Last year Namina* escaped from Timbuktu, one of the areas which fell under rebel group’s control. Namina left with her three daughters and six other children from her village. Her neighbours and their 16-year-old girl Sata were left behind.
“I saw a group of rebels come to the house and take Sata by force,” Namina reveals. “They gave her parents roughly £13 to ‘marry’ Sata. The rebels said the parents had no choice and that they were taking Sata to where they lived. The girl was weeping and tried to tear herself away from her captors. Her mother was weeping,” Namina recounts. “But the rebels, they came with guns.”
A few days later Sata managed to get hold of a mobile phone while her captors were away. She called her family and told them that she was in a house preparing food for her abductors. The rebels had told her that she was the wife of one man. Sata said she was locked in a room and gang raped.
“Sata tried to escape once but it was impossible,” Namina continues. “If she did and the rebels found her, they would take her and all her family members to a rebel group prison.”
The family eventually lost touch with Sata as rebels reportedly cut off telecommunication lines. The week we meet, government forces are advancing towards Timbuktu. Namina replies, “Now that the rebel groups are fleeing, she too can now flee – if they haven’t killed her yet.” Sata’s family remains in Timbuktu but Namina has no other news about them.
By mid-day, I am talking to Fatou who also left Timbuktu with her mother. Her voice is soft at first and she twists her fingers as she speaks. There is fear in her eyes but a quiet strength surfaces saying, ‘I am going to tell my story’.
“One day, my mother sent me to the market,” Fatou shares. “I knew that girls were supposed to wear a scarf to cover our heads. But that day I was not wearing one and the ‘rebellion police’ saw me. They said they were going to give me a lesson. “They beat me up,” she says. “And then they sent me home.” She told the incident to her mother after which they decided to leave immediately with nothing else but the clothes they wore that day.
Fatou recounts that before they left, some girls caught without scarves are beaten with a stick and given 100 lashes as punishment. At this, Fatou looks as if she is about to cry but she remains composed. She says nothing more. And then there were the boys. Like Sata, young boys are forcibly taken and “enrolled’ in rebel training camps. They are bought for a much heftier price than girls – around £250-500. Namina tells of a young boy she knows named Mohammed who fell prey and was recruited as a child soldier.
“These boys are very traumatised because they are taught how to use guns and how to fight,” Namina explains. “The children also see people whose hands or feet are being cut off by rebels. This has a very negative impact on them,” she says. As with young girls taken as “brides,” escaping from the camp can only mean death.
By the afternoon I am still hearing the same storyline, this time from Traman who left his town with his wife and baby to escape the violence. “I don’t know his name but I would see this boy in the village,” he says. “And then the next time I saw him he was carrying a gun.”
Oddly enough, some adolescent boys willingly enrol themselves in camps either for economic reasons (the boys and their families are paid by rebels) or because they say they truly believe in the rebel cause. As with Sata, families do not know of their sons’ whereabouts or well-being as government forces push northwards, taking control of key cities and former rebel stronghold provinces.
The sun is now setting on this very extraordinary Wednesday and I wonder where the Satas and the Mohammeds of this world are. I cry but my eyes are dry. I say a prayer for these lost girls and boys who should be in schools and not in rebel camps, holding books, not guns. Playing under the sun and not roaming the deadly terrains of a war zone. Children should be nowhere else but in the comfort and safety of their homes, with their parents, their siblings, their guardians. Away from harm. Away from war. Away from all this mess.
*All names have been changedTagged in: Mali, Mali Rebels, Timbuktu
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